“Fantasy fiction… begins in the real world, but it quickly becomes evident that behind the veil of real things and people another world exists, rich and strange and magical… the central character… a fairly ordinary person of no particular consequence in the world… becomes a crucial figure in a struggle between good and evil.”
Peggy Noonan N.Y. Review of books
But suppose this is not fantasy? Suppose it is a true picture of reality – a deeper and more meaningful reality than the life and world you consider to be “real”. The life and world of mortgages and politics and “getting by” – the life of quiet desperation that most of us accept as reality, as “all there is”.
Suppose that there is as, as Castaneda suggests in the title of one of his Don Juan books, a separate reality? Magical, invisible to everyday eyes, undetectable by science, and yet nonetheless there? And suppose that you, who seem to have no purpose, no necessary function in this material world, could find a vital, overwhelmingly important role in that other world, what would you say? That it sounds fun, but remains fantasy? That if science can’t find it, it simply can’t exist?
This argument sounds more impressive than it is. Most of the things that you consider important even in material life are undetectable by science. Love, hatred, unselfishness, greed, loyalty, treachery, patriotism, friendship can’t be expressed or analyzed in terms that have any scientific meaning. The physiological changes in the brain and body, yes. But their emotional or intellectual meaning, no. It’s like trying to determine the “meaning” of the Venus de Milo with a measuring tape and weighing scales. In science the word She has no “meaning”. Love has no “meaning”. The colour Blue has no “meaning”. Yet you know in reality, “inner” reality, these things have more meaning than the stock market or the price of bread.
You can go further than that. Get any group of people with their daytime “common sense” inhibitions laid aside for the moment, say late at night towards the end of a dinner party, and ask them if they have had any strange, inexplicable experiences. Inexplicable, that is, in daytime terms. Ghosts, clairvoyance, telepathy, strange interior warnings, UFO’s, knowledge of the future given to them in dreams – if you find a group of people who have never had any such you’ve found a group of zombies. Science dismisses such stories as simply that – stories. “Anecdotes are not evidence.” But statistics are simply lots of anecdotes added together, and if you look for them you’ll find so many of these “inexplicable” “unscientific” anecdotes on record, placed on record by witnesses who would be believed by any law court, in any trial, simply because they are plainly truthful people, that the anecdotes become statistics. For example UFO’s have been sighted and close encounters recorded by several million people, ranging from air force pilots and radar operators to policemen, land surveyors, housewives, farmers and government officials. Government documents describe them; government ministers and air force generals in various countries have acknowledged their reality, yet the scientific consensus is that they don’t exist. The reports are simply anecdotes. The witness are either liars or deluded.
There comes a point in these matters where it is more difficult to believe the scientific dismissal than the unscientific anecdotes. Another example is that of “interior voices”. In a survey conducted by an Oxford professor some 50% of the people he questioned claimed that at some time in their lives they had been spoken to and guided by an interior voice which they believed came from outside themselves. A number claimed they received frequent, even constant guidance. Most said the guidance was occasional, or had happened rarely, to give specific warnings of physical or spiritual danger. Were the two thousand or more people involved all lying, or deluded? Or really receiving guidance and warnings? And if so from where? From what?
One easy answer, if you want to fudge the question, is to say, “From ones subconscious”. But what does that mean? And if it means anything, where does the subconscious get its information from? Carl Jung, Aldous Huxley, would say from some kind of group mind, a “Racial subconscious” in which all our minds have their roots. But if that is so, where does the racial subconscious get its information from, and why does it choose to warn Mrs. Smith not to take the flight that crashes on take off, but decides not to warn the other passengers? Examine your own experiences.
Quite certainly you hear an “Interior voice” everyday of your life, because like everyone else you talk to yourself, silently, in your mind. To quote Carlos Castaneda again, it’s what he calls our “interior Dialogue”. We ask ourselves what we need to do next, should we take a break for coffee, was there something we meant to buy on the way home, do we need gasoline, is there something worth watching on TV tonight, what would be nice for supper. It’s a constant flow of trivial questions and answers for which we ourselves supply both sides of the dialogue – until suddenly, unexpectedly, an answer intrudes into the dialogue that doesn’t seem to come from our own mind.
Usually its when we’re planning to do something that we want to do, but still have a few doubts about. We’re busy squashing the doubts with all sorts of common sense arguments – “he’s really a nice guy and accepting a dinner date doesn’t commit me to a thing” – when suddenly what seems like someone else’s voices intrudes saying “he’s not a nice guy and don’t go near him or you’ll regret it forever”. Did you say it? Your conscience? Your subconscious? The racial subconscious? Instinct? Intuition? Or weirdest suggestion of all, someone else, some intelligence, or “being” or “spirit” invisible to you, yet capable of making contact with you through your mind, and who cares what happens to you.
Impossible, unscientific rubbish? Religious claptrap? An absurd return to medieval superstition? If you’re determined that those are the right answers, then the rest of this book is not for you, and I hope you haven’t wasted your money buying it. There is no way on earth that any of the following can be “proved” any more than you could “prove” to a blind man that the sky is blue. All anyone can do, and all this book can do, is to appeal to the general experience of mankind, to the vast store off “anecdotes” existing over the centuries, and try to draw conclusions from them.
These anecdotes point to the existence of a separate reality, another world that interpenetrates ours of which we catch fleeting, disconnected glimpses or momentary echoes. The anecdotes, the glimpses, the echoes, suggest that this other world is in some way more real than ours, more permanent, and that to ignore its existence and rules may cost us very dear.
But what are the rules? How can they possibly be discovered from the fragments of information we come across? And what is the relationship between it and our own material world? Friendly? Helpful? Hostile? Malignant? Such evidence as exists seems to point in both directions. Or could it be simply indifferent? The various churches and religions have always claimed that they – and they alone – know the answers. But since the answers they give are mostly contradictory this seems unconvincing.
In the 1960s drugs were the answer. Mescaline and LSD would open the Doors of Perception. Or if they didn’t, then Indian gurus would, or Zen, or TM, or someone in California who lived on Royal Jelly and water. In the 1980s it was channeling. Hunk-ra knew all the answers. In the 1990s it will be someone, something else. The only certainty about it is that the someone will make a lot of money, and the something they offer will be painless and easy. We’re willing to suffer pain for our bodies, but not for our souls, if we admit to possessing them.
This book offers no easy, painless answers. It may not arrive at any answers at all, because the only answers really worth having are the ones you arrive at yourself. The ones someone else gives you, ready made, are either worthless, because you can’t understand them, or are valuable only because you know them already, your mind is already prepared to receive them and all you need is to have them presented to you in simple terms.
The first question to find an answer for is even more fundamental than questions about the separate reality – do you want to be rich? Or good? (You can substitute your own preferred goal for rich – powerful, famous, successful, a winner – but “rich” can really do duty for all or any of them).
The immediate answer from most people is “both” and a great deal of Protestant Christian teaching claims that not only can you be both, but that you ought to be, and that in some peculiar way the two aims are inseparable. If you are good God will reward you with riches. And that if you have obtained riches or received them, this means that God sees how good you are and is giving you your reward.
I find this as unconvincing as a great deal else of “Christian teaching”, in part because it totally contradicts everything that Christ is reported to have said, and also because it flies in the face of all ordinary human experience. The rich are not noticeably good, and being good is not a recommended way to become rich. “Nice guys finish last” is a fundamental truth not only in sports but on Wall Street and everywhere else where people take money seriously. The only place and time where nice guys defeated the meanies was in Hollywood in the 1930’s, at least on the screen. In the actual town the meanies trampled the nice guys into the dirt just as they do everywhere else and have done since the time of Cain and Abel.
None of this means, “starve to death” and “forget about your mortgage”. What it does mean is to examine what you really want, and what will it cost you to get it? “Rich” doesn’t mean just having enough. It means having more than enough – and the problem about that is, where does one stop? The indoor swimming pool? The four-car garage? The third home? The tenth million? The second Van Gogh? The rich man, the rich woman becomes the slave of two desires, or one desire and one terror. The desire is to have more, not for any reason of need, or even rational pleasure, but for its own sake, because gaining more proves something, like a golf handicap. “I’m a success”. “I’m the man with two Cadillac’s”. “I’m the woman with four servants”.
The terror is to lose what one has already gained. Will the Stock Market go down? Will there be a recession? Will my children bleed me dry? Am I going to be ruined by alimony payments? And finally. “Am I going to die and have to leave it to all those bastards to enjoy?”
If you want to be rich, to have more than enough, these are parts of the price. There are others even more serious: office politics, inter company warfare, treading on fallen friends and foes to get to the top and the never ending compromises between what you know to be right and what you believe will be profitable.
Of course you can tell yourself that once you become seriously rich you will also be seriously charitable, in the fashion of the robber barons of the 18th century. You’ll make up for all the compromises with wrong by doing something right – a new wing for the local hospital, a new library for your old college, a large donation to an orphanage. Well it’s a point of view, but rather like a burglar using some of his loot to send children to the seaside. In its way, since it seems to justify wrongdoing, it really does more harm than good. The prostitute with a heart of gold is still a prostitute, and her golden heart makes prostitution seem acceptable, and even preferable to virtue.
But where have such words as “right”, “wrong”, and “virtue” come from? The 19th century? Surely they have no place in today’s world? Right means what is right for me in this situation as I see it? And wrong means what would be unpleasant for me here and now? And virtue doesn’t have meaning at all? If it did once have a meaning it meant a moral standard that was absolute, and always true, an ideal to which everyone ought to aspire, and about which one ought to feel shame if one fell short of it.
But all that is a hundred years out of date! There are no absolutes, no standards, no ideals, there is only “me”. How I feel, and what I want. Good is if I feel good. Bad is if I feel unhappy. Virtue is loving myself just the way I am, warts and all. If I don’t love myself, no one else will love me. And if they don’t love me they are missing out on the unique experience of knowing, and appreciating me! I’d be depriving them of something marvellous, my self.
One hears things like that said so often, and to such choruses of approval that they begin to sound true. “You have to love yourself. You have to respect yourself”. Or “I need to find the real me”.
Yet the universal opinion of mankind, at least from the time he first began to record his opinions, has been that to be selfish is wrong, and to be unselfish is good. The highest praise ever conferred on anyone throughout mankind’s history is that they were selfless. Certainly Ivan Boesky is on
record as saying “You ought to feel good about being selfish” but the general consensus is against him.
So, how can these two ways of thinking, the self-centred love myself fashion, and the older and more general try-to-be- unselfish fashion be reconciled? Simple common sense tells you that they can’t. You have to choose one or the other, and it’s exactly the same choice that was offered at the beginning of the chapter – do you want to be rich or good? Do you want to be selfish or unselfish? Do you want to serve yourself, or serve others? You can protest as much as you like that you only want to become rich, powerful, successful, famous so that you can serve others. It may start off being true, but very soon you will be obliged to make compromises that corrupt and betray the ideal, until the ideal is buried knee deep in mud. It was said a long time ago that you cannot serve God and Mammon – that no man can serve two masters. He will be loyal to the one and betray the other.
We have to make a choice, and while we can dramatise that choice by talking about riches and Cadillacs, success, fame, power. And all that goes with them. In simple fact we face the choice everyday and sometimes twenty times a day, between right and wrong, selfish and unselfish, virtue and vice, God and Mammon.
We face it most often in very small things. Do we take office stationery for private letters? Use the office phone for private calls? Fudge our expenses? Claim to be sick in orders to have a free day, a longer weekend? Tell a small lie to excuse being late, failing to do something? “But everyone does those things! It’s part of office life! Hell, the company exploits me enough! I’m just getting my own back, a little of it!”
Yes. Maybe. But theft is theft, and lies are lies, even small thefts and small lies. Because no matter what fashionable philosophy says, there are absolute standards right and wrong. Where would you draw the line between “acceptable” theft and unacceptable? A dollar’s worth? Ten dollars? A hundred? At what point does a white lie become black? Are ten white lies less important than one black one or does one reach a point where truth and falsehood blur into one another, so that no one who knows you believes a word you say?
But, Mr. Smith, Mrs. Brown cry, “I’m really a good person! Yes, I know I dipped into the petty cash. Yes. I told the boss about Miss Jones, so that she got fired and I got promoted. Yes, Alright, I did cheat on my husband – or my wife – yes, yes, yes! But fundamentally, I’m good. I mean, isn’t Everyone, I mean deep down underneath? Well, maybe Hitler wasn’t, but I’m not evil! I’m good!”
Again, well, maybe! And maybe not. It isn’t necessary to be evil to serve evil, any more than its necessary to be in the Mafia to serve the cause of crime. Every policeman or official who takes a bribe, every witness to a crime who refuses to testify for fear of the consequences, everyone who buys something at the back door without asking where it came from is serving crime. Every businessman or woman who offers favours to a local councillor in order to win a contract is serving evil. Every politician who votes for pork barrel measures is serving evil. And everyone knows it. Except that when we and our friends do it, it’s just the way the world is; you can’t do anything about it. Its only when “they”, the others do it that we get angry and call it by its real name.
Nor are our daily choices between right and wrong, good and evil, confined to simple matters of fact, like petty theft and white lies, or closing our eyes to wrongdoing that we ought to protest about. The impatient driver yelling abuse at other drivers, cutting in dangerously in front of someone else, trying to beat the traffic lights in order to save three minutes getting home – the office manager taking it out on the typists because he has a hangover, the manageress in the store tormenting one of the sales girls because she is young and pretty – or even because she’s plain and slow – the diner in the restaurant being rude to a waitress – the mother failing to teach her children good manners because she’s afraid they won’t love her if she corrects them. All these and millions like them, like us, are contributing to the world’s evil, like grains of sand piling up into drifts that bury the oasis and choke the well.
Corporate tycoons take decisions that blight landscapes, poison whole districts with toxic wastes, pollution. But you and I can poison the atmosphere with our anger, our impatience, our malice, our dirty stories, our unkind gossip, our greed, our lust, our petty hatreds, our lies, our trivial dishonesties, our tiny treacheries against our friends, our colleagues.
We don’t have to be mass murderers to serve evil.
Equally, we don’t have to believe in God to serve good. We ought to try to become good because we see that it’s right, it’s preferable to evil. We ought not to look for a reward, any more than we look for a reward for paying our taxes, or defending our country in a just war. We should do it because its what every decent person does. Its decent and right to be unselfish, to think of other people’s feelings, other people’s interests and rights. And it’s indecent and wrong to be selfish, and think only of our own feelings and momentary desires.
None of this need have anything at all to do with that separate reality we were considering earlier. It’s simply a matter of behaving as you yourself have always known one should behave, and as no doubt you have behaved all your life. But that separate reality gives your behaviour – and other people’s – a much deeper meaning, just as knowing where your taxes go and what they buy, gives a deeper meaning to paying them.
At this point you’re probably saying that there’s no such thing as evil. Right and wrong, maybe. Goodness, yes, of course! Even virtues, ideals, unselfishness. Yes! A separate reality gives your behaviour – and other people’s – a much deeper meaning, just as knowing where your taxes go and what they buy, gives a deeper meaning to paying them But evil? Never! Maybe people do things they shouldn’t – negative things, unloving things, wrong things, maybe almost bad things – but not evil.
Of course you’re right. Or at least you’re on the side of majority opinion, which in a democracy comes to the same thing. But even so, there are things in the world that do need explaining. For example, cattle ranchers in Brazil dispossess a tribe of Indians and burn down the rain forest that used to be the Indians home, so that the ranchers can raise beef cattle for American hamburgers. But no, that’s not evil, that’s just business. And progress.
A multinational’s chemical complex in India explodes, killing and maiming thousands of people, because safety standards were neglected. And compensation for the victims is pretty meager and very slow. But of course that’s not evil, either, just unfortunate. And what can you expect to happen in a country like India anyway?
Tobacco companies, facing falling sales in the First World and a ban on high tar tobacco, pressurise third World governments to allow them to sell tobacco there – even thought those Third World governments had been trying to warn their peoples of the dangers of smoking, and to keep foreign
Tobacco companies out. But that too isn’t evil. Just free trade. And after all, no one has really proved tobacco kills people. All those cigarette smokers dying of lung cancer is probably just a sad coincidence.
Or Third World countries in Africa where food aid ends up as soldiers’ rations or in the black market? That’s simply a nasty story that polite people don’t like to believe. Or China, and the rush to forgive and forget the Tiananmen Square massacre. We have to help these people of course, and if we make a profit while we’re doing it, well, that’s only our just reward. And even if one did disapprove of such things, just a little, well, they’re not things for which individuals are responsible. Governments and corporations have their own rules, their own moralities. Men and women who wouldn’t hurt a fly in their own homes simply have to take tough decisions on behalf of their employers. It’s just the way things are. You can’t blame individuals for what they do in the course of serving their governments or their corporations.
Well, maybe. But individuals do things at times that need some serious explaining. Like the father who commits incest with his small daughter and sodomizes his seven year old son. Evil? Or just a victim of lack of privilege, lack of love when he was a small child? But Mr. So and so was highly educated, and much loved by doting parents until he killed them both with an axe because they objected to his drug addiction. And Mr. Such and such was also highly educated, a successful lawyer – he battered his live-in girlfriend so badly and so often she became brain damaged. He also killed her little girl, slowly, by repeated beatings over several months. A deeply misunderstood man? Or simply evil? Or, in a way even more horrifying, a feebly bad character possessed by evil?
Because a number of men and women – who commit these sorts of crimes, claim that it was not really they who did it. “Something got into me. Something made me do it. I just couldn’t help myself”. What kind of “something”? Drink? Drugs? Schizophrenia? Plain old-fashioned madness? Or something else, something that used one of those factors as a gateway, a means of entry into a weak, undisciplined mind in order to force it to serve evil, to enslave it, possess it? That entered our World and that poor possessed creature, from the other world, the separate reality? But this has to be going too far! Possession? By evil spirits? Oh! Please! We’ll be talking about hell and damnation next! Well, even that’s possible. People, our own ancestors, talked about such things for centuries, and believed they went a long way to explaining the world they lived in, and what happened in it. We’ve rejected their explanation, but have never yet come up with something better. Something more comfortable, yes, but better, in the sense of explaining more, and more convincingly, no. Our ancestors saw the world, this world, as a battleground between good and evil, in which all men and women were active warriors, passive or cowardly hostages, or outright betrayers. They also believed that there were invisible but very powerful armies of spirits whose concern was to win the battle, either for God or for Satan, by means of influencing men and women towards good, or towards evil. On one side of the battlefield stood Heaven and its angels. On the other, Satan and his Demons. In the middle, mankind. Sins, vices, crimes, selfishness, undisciplined passions gave the advantage to Satan. Unselfishness, goodness, served God. Saints, by their holiness, not only saved themselves, but also aided the weakness of others, just as a strong leader in a battle can rally wavering soldiers to gain a victory.
It’s a primitive picture, naive, simplistic, superstitious, any adjective you like to apply to it. But the real question is, is it true? In the way that a child’s guide to physics could be “true”? Unless we happen to be trained physicists, the account physics gives us of the material world is much stranger and harder to believe than the medieval account of the war between good and evil. Neither you nor I have ever seen a quark or a neutrino, nor will we. When we’re told about “worm-holes in space” or “superstrings” or every particle “knowing” what every other particle in the universe is doing, we can only nod wisely, and say nothing. No one can prove these things to us. All they can do is tell us that mathematically they offer a better explanation of the universe than any alternative so far discovered or invented.
I suggest that a similar claim can be made about the “war between good and evil”. It may not be true. It’s unlikely that anyone will ever be able to prove it – or disprove it. All that can be done is to consider whether it explains what we see happening all round us more plausibly than any so far suggested alternative. And just as a physicist can at least show us the tracks made by a particle on a photographic plate, so here and there we can find traces, or what seem to be traces, of that war. A number of books have been published in recent years about what the writers call “near death experiences”, in which people have seemed to themselves to leave their bodies, often when apparently dying in hospital and under intensive medical care. These patients have eventually recovered and have described their experiences either to their own doctors or to investigators.
There are by now several hundred such case histories, and the likelihood is that there are many other cases that have not been investigated or reported. In nearly all of them there are similar features – first of all that the body lying in the hospital bed is not the “reality” of the person involved but merely an envelope, or vehicle, now being laid aside. The true self or centre of consciousness of the patient floats away from the inert, dying body and finds it cannot make itself known to the medical staff in the room, but it can hear what they are saying. It can also pass through walls or closed doors, visit other parts of the hospital and outside it. But at a certain moment this freedom of movement is overtaken by a compulsion like a powerful current drawing a swimmer in a particular direction.
That direction is into and along a dark tunnel, with a bright, dazzling light at the far end. On arriving at that bright light the dying individual is made aware of the entirety of his or her life, its spiritual reality in terms of good and evil, and in the same moment becomes aware of a powerful and overwhelmingly good presence that tells them they must go back to the life they have almost left, either to make amends for past failures, or to fulfil obligations not yet completed, to their children in particular if they are still young.
Usually they are heart broken at having to return, or else they unselfishly accept it as a necessary but painful sacrifice. In either case they have no real choice, and after a swift retracing of the dark tunnel find themselves waking in their hospital bed to see doctors and nurses bending triumphantly over them, having just “saved them from death”. Typically such patients amaze their doctors by describing not only their total experience, but by including facts that in rational terms they could not know – what was said when clearly they were in deep coma or anaesthesia – or what was going on in a neighbouring ward. Very often the doctors have been not only amazed, but in some peculiar way indignant, at this upsetting of scientific possibility and impossibility “explanations” have been invented to account for such experiences, but slowly, over the years, a number of intelligent investigators have assembled so many “anecdotes” that they have become statistics. These things have happened. There is every reason to suppose that they are still happening, and far more frequently than is reported. Patients who have begun to describe such things to an unsympathetic or stupid doctor (and even doctors can be both) are likely to keep their story to themselves in future. No patient wants to find herself or himself transferred to a psychiatric ward for trying to convince an idiot as to what really happened to them.
Its often said with a kind of dismal triumph that we can never know anything about the “other world” or “the next life” because no one has ever come back to tell us about them. But these people have come back, and have told us, at least a little. Surely it’s worth paying some attention to what they say and trying to analyse what it means? In the Middle Ages geography, like every other learned subject, was in the hands of monks. Being scholars they never travelled anywhere, and had no direct experience of any place beyond their monastery walls. They drew their knowledge of the world from the books of earlier geographers, going back for preference to a handful of Greek and Roman geographers of the Classical Age.
If anyone, a merchant or an adventurer, tried to tell them, of his own practical experiences of travel, they refused to listen to him, first, because not being a monk he was self-evidently ignorant, and secondly because what he tried to tell them disagreed with Ptolemy or Strabo or some other learned geographer. Accordingly maps of the world continued to be drawn that ignored the existence of China and the East Indies, long after medieval merchants and travellers were well acquainted with both. Indeed the Silk Road from China to the Mediterranean had existed from Roman times. Goods from China were imported into the Roman Empire. But since Ptolemy ignored the existence of China so did the monks. Modern Science is in danger of becoming like Medieval Scholasticism. And if actual human experience contradicts science, then actual human experience has to be ignored. Science says that the “other world” doesn’t exist. Therefore no one can visit it, or experience it, and anyone who says he has is either lying or deluded. Because if he, if she is not, then a great deal of science would have to be discarded or rethought – and that is too painful to contemplate. But it does need to be contemplated. What can we learn from these “near death” experiences? First of all that death is not the end of our existence as thinking individuals. Consciousness continues. We continue.
You might object, and it has been objected, that since none of the people in these “near death” experiences actually died, they tell us nothing about death itself, only about the way our minds work as death seems to approach. The suggestion is that some in-built mechanism in the brain produces these ‘”fantasies” as the normal brain functions begin to shut down.
Why should it? What purpose would it serve? To console us for the approaching dissolution, fool us into believing we would continue? I would find that explanation harder to believe than a simple acceptance of the stories as being real experiences of real, if “non-material” events. Moreover, no theory about an “in-built mechanism” can explain the many times reported facts that these patients revived from near- death possess knowledge they could not have possessed unless their centre of consciousness, their means of awareness, was for a brief period capable of travelling outside of their Physical body. And that too involves explanations that conventional science cannot provide.
It’s worth taking a very careful look at these “near death” experiences for two reasons. First of all they are in a true sense so ordinary. They are not being reported by mystics, or people deeply involved in religion, people who might expect to have such experiences. They happen to very ordinary people who mostly have no expectations of any kind about an after-life or a “separate reality”. They happen to housewives and farmers, soldiers and stockbrokers, labourers and executives. And they almost always contain some elements of recognition, of this experience being in the deepest sense more real than the life they seem to be leaving behind.
Nor is the experience always consoling, as one would expect it to be if it were in some way invented by the patient’s sub-conscious as a protection against the fear of death. Some of those who return to tell these stories are deeply shaken by them and determined to change their ways. They say they have been shown what waits for them if they don’t; “shown” not in the traditional imagery of a vengeful God consigning them to hell, but of a deeply loving Presence showing them the reality of their lives, and where that reality must lead, unless they change it.
The second reason for examining these stories is exactly that “Presence” they all describe. What is it? Who is it? Since most of the “near death” stories have been gathered in the United States, and since most U.S. Americans are at least formally Christians, the general assumption is that this presence is Christ. But it does not say so, and could easily be fitted in to many other religious frameworks, or into some completely new framework that has very little to do with any of our conventional ideas about religion.
None of the stories describe choirs of angels, or a Judge on a throne – simply a presence that some see as a figure of almost unendurable majesty, and some experience simply as light but in both cases expressing love of a kind and degree that seems as far removed from any human experience of love as a candle flame is from sunlight. And yet an inflexible love, that requires an absolute obedience. Indeed, it does not need to “require” obedience, because to withhold obedience from it would be unthinkable. If one wanted to do that one would have to escape from it, hide somewhere.
But most of the people who tell these stories long to remain with it, and are heart broken at having to return to their previous, physical lives. Or, if they choose to return because they know they are needed in them, usually by their young children, they still feel a deep sorrow at having to do so, at having to post-pone their entry into this deeper and wonderful reality.
That is the point at which a great many sympathetic commentators on these experiences stop. They accept the reality, the truth of the stories, and then give an interpretation of them, which could be summed up as saying, “Death is simply an entry into eternal happiness”. They embroider this promise with a great deal of charming imagery; flowery meadows, laughing children, welcoming friends and relatives who have already “passed over” and often with a great many banal pleasures from “musical evenings” to picnics to “philosophical discussions” – until the sharp reality of the actual near-death experiences as reported by those who had them dissolve into wish-fulfillment of a generally unimaginative kind.
Most of all, these “spiritualist” fantasies leave out of the account the darker side of the picture – that the experience of death may not be happy or pleasant, and that wrong-doing in this life will have to be accounted for at death – and paid for. At most, the fantasists concede that some people will need a longer period to achieve total bliss than others, but the general picture is of an Edwardian summer afternoon, with croquet and tennis, and kindly spirits to serve the tea and cakes.
The simplest common sense rebels at this. Do Hitler and Stalin simply have to wait a bit longer for their cucumber sandwiches? Get served last? If death is not the end of all consciousness, then surely the next life must provide some form of justice, some balancing of the accounts and debts run up in this life? Do the concentration camp guards of the holocaust receive exactly the same treatment as their victims? Absolute and immediate forgiveness? An instant wiping clean of the slate?
And if such instant forgiveness was offered by the Presence, could those in need of it accept it? Could you? If, during your life here, you had done terrible things, and if at your death you became aware of how terrible they really were, how would you react? Either you would brazen it out, saying. “Very well, I did what I did because I had to, or wanted to, or similar things were done to me, and I was getting my revenge”. Or you would collapse in horror, crying “God forgive me! I didn’t know what I was doing”. Or you might conceivably try, to deny it, saying it wasn’t like that, and whoever is claiming it was simply doesn’t understand, or is lying. Now to my mind it would be impossible to maintain the first or third attitude in the face of the Presence the stories describe. You would see the Presence as an enemy to escape from or hide from, or at the least to turn your back on, much as a criminal would prefer to walk away from a policeman. In the second case, where the wrong doer accepts that he has done wrong, it seems to me that he too would want to hide from the Presence, not from hostility or anger, but from simple shame. He, or she, wouldn’t want to join those who were refusing to accept their guilt. But he would want a hiding place where he – or again, she – could come to terms with guilt, and decide how to purge it.
Suppose, God forbid it, but just suppose, that in this life you betrayed a friend – and that after your death and your friends death, you would have to meet – and that your friend would know what you had done – would know every detail about it, the meanness of your motive, the baseness of the betrayal – what would you do? What would you want to do? Go up to them and say “Well hallo, let’s forget the past”? Or would you run, hide, and pray you didn’t have to face them?
But the Presence says, “one day you must face them. Somehow, between then and now, you have to pay for that treachery, make amends. Not because I say so, not because your friend says so, she has forgiven you long ago, and I, I love you beyond measure no matter what you have done – but because you want to make amends, you want to cleanse yourself. You want to offer your one time friend some recompense so beautiful that your treachery will cease to have any meaning, indeed will cease ever to have existed. Now I am going to leave you alone, so that you can solve that problem”.
What would you do? The problem is insoluble. To undo something terrible that you have done, and not simply undo it, but make it disappear? How can you? How could anyone? And yet, until you do, until you solve this insoluble problem how can you face your friend? How can you face the Presence? It makes it easier to understand how other, far worse wrong-doers can brazen it out, refuse to accept their guilt, or else triumph in it, defy the Presence, and say “To hell with forgiveness, I neither need it nor want it, and utterly reject it”.
It seems to be becoming clear that if the after-death experiences are true, then they point towards a wide range of possibilities for the next life, not because this is what conventional religion has always taught, but because this is what reason demands. It has to be like this. And if there has to be this range of possible futures on the dark side, then surely the same is true for the bright side, for those people who at death have nothing to regret, nothing for which they need forgiveness. Even in that fortunate condition they won’t be all the same. There are those who have done nothing seriously wrong, but who also have done nothing very much on the credit side. They may never have betrayed a friend, but neither have they ever done much for the friends they have had. They never stole anything, but neither did they give very much.
There is a medieval carol that describes how spirits – the spirits of people who have just died, – find themselves standing naked on the edge of a desolate heathland that they have to cross in order to reach Paradise. The heathland is immense, covered with rocks and thorn-bushes, and to cross it will take days and nights of harsh journeying on foot. The naked spirit will be torn to pieces by the thorns and sharp stones, and tormented by thirst and hunger – unless it can find food and drink on the journey, and warm, strong clothes and stout boots before the journey begins. But where to find such things in this grim desolation? The answer lies in the spirits past. If in its past life it ever gave a poor man boots or clothes, if it ever gave a poor woman food and drink, then it could have these things now, to protect it on its journey among the thorns and stones. If it never gave anything then woe betide it, even though it kept all the Ten Commandments.
There are such people. What will happen to them? Righteous, pillars of the local church, but empty, unloving, cold? Then there are those who have been guilty of all sorts of small wrongs, who have drunk too much and made love too often to too many people, but have done these things with warmth and gaiety? And who have given, not just money or things, but themselves. People who have loved their friends and helped strangers. What will happen to them? Surely not quite the same as happens to the cold, unloving righteous people? And finally there are the ones who are truly good – and truly loving. As the child’s prayer goes, Dear God, please make the nice people good, and the good people nice. What happens to the good people who are nice? Warm, giving, and full of love, the kind the Presence can welcome with words of praise?
Well, of course, they would go straight to Paradise. Or would they? Would they want to? To be happy forever in green fields and pleasant mansions, while people they knew on earth were hiding from the Presence, lost in shame, or wrapped in anger? Surely they would want to help? But how? Earlier, we were considering the conventional religious imagery of a war between good and evil, with God on one side and Satan on the other, while mankind is the battleground. Although this is plausible, it seems inadequate, and to an extent misleading. The people who have come near to death and have experienced that Presence don’t describe a warrior figure, a St. Michael with a flaming sword whose sole aim is to destroy demons; they describe a Being who does not wish to destroy anyone, only to convert them, to help them towards repentance, towards a state of mind in which they can accept the Being’s infinite love.
If the imagery of war is to be used at all, it has to be a war in which the only weapons employed on the side of good are love and forgiveness and repentance. The weapons of the other side, of evil, are hatred, anger, and temptations – temptations to pride – “I will not seek forgiveness, nor accept it. I will not kneel before the Presence. I shall answer its maudlin love with hatred”. And temptations to all our weaknesses our greed’s and lusts and vanities and follies. Then there is fear. Fear of the consequences of trying to be good.
We are not only tempted towards evil, with all kinds of seductive rewards – power, fame, luxury, money, pleasures of the flesh, and the more subtle but even more dangerous pleasures of the mind – we are also and often tempted towards good. We feel we ought to be good, that it would feel very pleasant to be good, to choose right instead of wrong, be unselfish instead of selfish, to give instead of take, to forgive instead of being vengeful, to answer anger with gentleness instead of with our own anger, be sober and quiet instead of gluttonous and brutal – we face these temptations of goodness every day.
But usually we reject them. One day, but not now. Dear Lord, make me good, but not yet. Because too often we are afraid of being good, of trying to become good. It would be too painful, too difficult. And people would think we had gone soft, weak, they wouldn’t respect us – they’d take advantage of us. And how could we afford it, if we paid all our debts, were strictly honest with everyone, always told the truth? “This house I’m trying to sell you, I’m afraid I haven’t told you all that’s wrong with it”. Or “Those shares I’ve been telling you were certain to make a profit. As a matter of fact I’ve really heard a rumour that they’ll go down, right through the floor”. We’d get fired.
Or how can a man – a real man – tell the fellows he goes drinking with that he’s going on the wagon and means to spend his evenings at home with his wife and children from now on? They’d think he was afraid of her, or too mean to pay his share of the drinks. They’d tell everyone he was a wimp. There are as many occasions for that kind of fear as there are people. “Being good is dull!” “No one is perfect”. “Are you trying to be a saint or something?” “Who do you think you are? Some kind of Jesus freak?” “You’ve changed! I always thought of you as a real swinger. What’s wrong with you? Are you ill?” “Why won’t you? Everybody does it. Are you special, or just scared?” Scared of sex, or drink, or drugs, or stealing or any of the things that “everybody” does. What we’re really scared of is being accused of being scared, of being soft, or prudish, or frigid, or a “bad sport” or a “boss’s spaniel” or simply “different”.
That’s the battlefield. Those are the weapons. On the one side that overwhelming love, that offer of forgiveness, that command to repent, to make amends, that invitation to become good. No matter how bad we are. And on the other side all the opposite temptations, the invitations to pride and folly, be “like everyone else”, to “look after number one” and, “to love one’s self just the way one is”. And you and I are involved in this battle whether we like it or not. There are no neutrals, no ways of escape. People who try to avoid taking sides serve evil simply by failing to even try to serve good. Tyranny thrives on cowardice.
Evil is tyranny. You don’t need to look to Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, or Caligula to demonstrate it. Look at the nearest alcoholic or drug addict or compulsive gambler – or the local Don Juan or nymphomaniac – or miser or social climber or everyone else driven by wrong desires. Their desires are their tyrants, and they are slaves. They may claim to enjoy their slavery and for a time maybe they do. There are other slaves who don’t enjoy their slavery at all, even briefly. They are the ones referred to in the last chapter, who are enslaved not so much by their desires as by their fears. They would like to become good, if only they dared to defy evil. But they daren’t. They don’t want to go on doing the things they do, but they daren’t stop, for fear of what people would say or do. And then there are those who don’t consider themselves to be slaves at all – who don’t commit crimes, or indulge in vices – but neither do they make any sort of stand against them. “I just don’t want to get involved” and “You don’t get any thanks for interfering”. “Yes, maybe I did hear something, but then, you can’t interfere between a husband and wife. How could I know he was beating her to death?”
Or else they make a virtue of not getting involved. “I simply don’t believe in evil. I like to think only beautiful things”. And “why are newspapers and TV always full with horrors? Why can’t they give us good news? I want to be uplifted, not dragged through the gutters every day”.
The ways of escaping – or trying to escape – from taking sides between evil and goodness are almost endless, but the two commonest are self-deception (its none of my business, or else, it doesn’t really exist) and fear (I’d love to do something about it, I really would, but I’ve got a wife and kids, or I’d lose my job and mother depends on my salary).
But maybe you’re saying, oh yes, evil exists, and of course crime exists. But not here, not where I live, not anywhere I can do anything about it. I live in a very fine community. I know there are red neck places where the judge is corrupt, the police chief is a sadist, and the local bullyboys get away with murder, quite literally. That’s wrong, and if I lived down there I’d do something about it, I really would. But here? Nearly everyone goes to one of the churches, we contribute to charity, we welcome newcomers, and we keep the streets spotless. This is the real America and it’s good. Sure, in big cities you have organised crime, they even control the garbage collection. And the police aren’t all they should be, and smart lawyers get the wrong people off. But we’re different.
Well, that’s wonderful to hear. You obviously live somewhere very special. But lets imagine a community that looks like yours, but isn’t quite so special when one looks below the surface. It has, let’s say, an orphanage, where some very unpleasant things have been going on for a very long time. But no one does anything about them. No one wants to believe there’s any need. After all, Mrs. H the matron comes from one of the best families in the town. Mr. J, the director, is a lay minister in the main church. The boys who’ve made these accusations over the years are definitely not the kind of boy one wants as a fellow citizen and it’s a good thing they’ve been persuaded not to stay around and make trouble.
Then there’s the local factory, where a lot of out of town girls come to work. Everyone has heard rumours that the manager requires certain favours when he hires a girl, but then, rumours aren’t evidence, and those sorts of girls – well, they mostly look as if they didn’t need asking twice.
And there is Mrs. A the State Congresswoman and Mr. B the State Senator. According to what one hears they keep some very strange company up in the capital. Mafia types even. Crooked developers. So why do people vote for them, time after time? Well – favours, mostly. Back in the Vietnam days, no local boy got drafted if he didn’t want to be. And there are scholarships, and jobs, and new roads, and the yacht marina – there’s government money that might have gone somewhere else only Mrs. A and Mr. B directed it here. The community owes them.
Of course, there was that very unpleasant case of young J, lawyer M’s teenage son, who kidnapped that nine year old boy and raped him in the woods. But these things can happen anywhere. And yes, you’re probably right, young J ought to have gone to prison, to teach him a lesson. He always was wild. But Mrs. A is lawyer M’s cousin and Judge S suspended the sentence on appeal. Obviously he thought it was best. And that little boy who got raped, he certainly shouldn’t have been throwing sticks at automobiles going by. He was really asking for trouble. No, this is a good community and I don’t want to hear a word against it.
The plain fact is that in any community there is usually only a tiny minority who actively serve evil, who commit crimes, do evil things. But there will be a very large majority that stays quiet and does nothing to prevent evil being carried on. While if there is even one person who is willing to make a stand, and lead the opposition to evil, that will be wonderful, and not at all to be taken for granted.
Take a couple of the most obvious cases in our century. Germany and Russia. In pre-Nazi Germany the average German was just as nice as you are. Decent, law abiding, clean, honest, friendly, a good neighbour, a good parent, an obedient teenager, a faithful husband or wife. And not only virtuous, but cultured, musical, artistic. And tolerant, of Catholics, of Protestants, of Jews.
And then came Hitler. And the Gestapo. And the race laws. Tolerance – of Jews – became next door to a crime. To help Jews did become a crime. What could a law-abiding citizen do? Maybe this Hitler was a madman. Maybe these race laws were evil. Maybe one wouldn’t get caught if one hid Mrs. Goldberg and her children in the attic for a night or two until they could escape out of the country. But maybe one would get caught! And what then! It didn’t bear thinking about! So Mrs. Goldberg and her children were turned away and ended up in Auschwitz. It was really terrible. One still has nightmares about it. But what could one do?
Or Russia. Russians are kind people. Emotional, warm, loving, soulful. Deeply religious by instinct. But Stalin came, and neighbours denounced neighbours, children denounced their parents, people stayed silent, only hoping the purges would spare them. Insanity, cruelty, evil covered the whole country like a fog. How many spoke against it? How many supported those who did? How many even dared to try to teach their children what was truly right and what was truly wrong? How could they dare? Life is precious, even to a slave.
And if you believe that this life is all there is, that there is no separate reality, no watchful Presence that cares what we do, no evil beings who long to enslave us and finally devour us, then that slave attitude is at least understandable, even if it remains wrong. It takes a real hero to sacrifice the one life he has, she has, in order to do what is right. But if you believe that this earthly life is only one part of a much greater whole, if, as someone put it, this life is like the underside of a Persian carpet, where it’s impossible to see the real pattern, and one can only see the real pattern, the reality of the carpet’s beauty when one enters the next life, then choosing virtue against evil becomes that much easier, because it is less lonely. It may be, it will be, still fairly lonely here – but here is not the only place there is.
Let’s imagine for a moment that in broad terms you accept what has been written so far – that there is a separate reality, that good and evil exist, and that in the conflict between them you have a role to play – your acceptance of all this is even likely, because if you didn’t accept it you’d have thrown this book away several pages ago – imagining you do accept what has been written so far, what would your role be?
It’s easy to talk about resisting evil, but how? What does it mean in practical terms? You don’t live in Nazi Germany, or under any sort of Communist tyranny – indeed, that seems to be following Nazism into history. Of course there’s corruption and evil in America – there’s pollution, and the Ozone layer, and the rain forests, and famine in Africa, and diseases in the Third World, and unscrupulous bankers and multi-nationals, and pornography, and cynical businessmen exploiting the young – there are a million things wrong with the world but what can an ordinary person do about them? Sign petitions? March in demonstrations? Write to one’s congressman? Give to charity? Ring up the local radio station to state one’s views?
All these things are momentarily satisfying, but none of them seem to have any long-term effect. Even really big efforts often come to nothing, or even leave things worse than they were before. We’ve all heard of Third World projects that cost millions, and end up doing more harm than good. And on the individual level we’ve all come across dedicated do-gooders who with the very best intentions leave a swathe of destruction and fury behind them. They only meant to set the school board straight about a few things, and now no one is speaking to anyone else and rich Mrs. X has withdrawn her offer to build the new sports stadium. They only meant to help Jane and Henry over the bad patch in their marriage – and now Henry is suing for divorce and Jane is on Valium and a lot too much vodka. “I only meant -!” is like their battle cry.
In fact, doing good is much harder than it looks. No one expects to learn how to play the piano in a couple of hours, or become a good chess player, or golfer, or stockbroker. But a great many people assume that doing good is different – that all you need are good intentions. As the ancient saying has it, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In reality, before you can do good, you have to become good, or at least make very serious and sensible efforts in that direction. Before you can hope to heal the sick you have to become a doctor, or a nurse. Before you can teach children you need to become a teacher. And the same thing applies to doing good. Before you can reform the world, or even the smallest part of it, you have to reform yourself.
Think of that unsuccessful do-gooder described above. What went wrong with his, her efforts to be helpful? Well, lack of tact for one thing, patience for another, along with an inability to understand anyone else’s point of view, or even to listen to it.
But, the failed do-gooder cries, it had nothing to do with those things – I was right! Well, maybe. But being right is not always enough. We need to be right in a way that leads other people to accept it – or at least doesn’t annoy them so much that they’d really prefer to be wrong than to agree with us.
You’ve almost certainly met people who don’t even need to say anything, let alone do anything, to upset you. The hairs on the back of your neck seem to rise up just being near them. They seem to radiate a kind of atmosphere that chokes you. There are degrees and levels of this effect, from slight to overwhelming, and sometimes the worst cases can still be overlaid and disguised with charm or bonhomie. But your instinct tells you that these are bad people, evil, and that the sensible thing is to run, fast.
You’re also likely to have met people, not so often, but still a few, who are absolutely the opposite. Again, they don’t need to say or do anything, but you feel better for being near them. They radiate goodness, a healthy joy in living. They themselves might be in a wheelchair but they make you glad and grateful to be alive. And then perhaps, there is a tinge of shame that you’re not like them – although that’s the last thing in the world they’d want you to feel. Indeed, if you tried to tell them how they affected you they’d be genuinely bewildered. “Me? Making you feel good? You must be crazy. Its you who make me feel good”.
Now, the people at these two extremes obviously do things and say things, as well as radiating their opposite atmospheres of evil and good. But everything they do and say is impregnated and given force by what they are. The evil man or woman may give to charity, but what they give carries corruption with it. The charm they might use to disguise their evil is like a spider’s web, sticky with menace they affect everything round them the way poison ivy affects a garden. Touch them and you’re poisoned.
The same is true in the reverse way of the people who radiate goodness. Everything they do and say becomes golden. They smile at a stranger, and he feels better for it all day long. They stroke a fretful child’s head in a supermarket queue, and the child stops whimpering. There’s a story about St. Francis of Assisi and one of his early followers that illustrates this very pleasantly. Francis told his companion that they would go into the town to preach. Off they went and for a couple of hours they seemed to do nothing but walk around streets saying hello to old women, and smiling at passers by. At last Francis’s companion lost his patience with this waste of time and demanded to know when they were going to begin preaching. “But brother!” Francis said, we have been preaching!”
Obviously it’s not enough just to walk about smiling at people and saying hello. There has to be something behind the smile, some reality of feeling behind the “hello”. What does it have to be, and how does it get there? Well, truthfully, you don’t need me or anyone else to tell you. You know. There has to be love. Love of people. But that’s so easy to say! What does it mean? Some of the nastiest people on earth sing songs about love, talk endlessly about love, and have less understanding of what it means than a parrot. What is love? Sexual passion? A mother with her child? For most of us, love is possession. It may range from the ridiculous – I love hamburgers – to the near sublime – I’d die for my children – but it is still possessive. My wife, my boyfriend, my lover, my child. How could it be any other way? You can’t be expected to love all children, or other people’s children, in the way you love your own. Even loving your own can be difficult enough at times. But as long as that element of possessiveness exists, the love is tarnished by selfishness. Understandable, excusable, seemingly unavoidable, but selfish nonetheless. This is tragically obvious in a vast number of divorces that come about not for any reasons of hatred or real incompatibility but because for at least one of the partners what they called love has come to an end. “I just don’t get anything out of it anymore. We used to have good sex, the best, but now its like – well, like nothing. While with Marcia and me, oh boy, that’s really something”.
Or, “I guess with the children grown up there’s nothing to hold us together anymore. All Charlie wants to do is to go fishing”.
And then between parents and children – “How could you do this? To me? Your own mother! Didn’t I give you everything? I nearly died in that hospital when you were born, I was sick for years after – I couldn’t think of sex, that’s why your father left us. You were my whole life – and now you want to leave me to go and live with that slut. How could you?
Or else there’s a kind of love that on the face of it seems totally unselfish, that gives everything and seems to ask nothing in return. The mother who keeps on giving money to her son to spend on drink. The wife who puts up with beatings from her husband because “I just love him. When he’s sober he’s the sweetest man you could ever meet”. The girl who puts up with every lie and infidelity from her lover. (This kind of love is much more feminine than masculine).
You could call it doormat love. And if you dig into it you find selfishness there too. It can be a subtle method of controlling someone who couldn’t be controlled or possessed in any other way. Or it can be a simple terror of losing a possession. “If I didn’t give him the money he’d steal it and go to jail. I’d lose him forever”. “If I didn’t put up with him hitting me he’d probably leave me. He’s so handsome he wouldn’t be long finding someone else”. “Oh God, if I challenged him about his lies and the other girls he mightn’t come back to me. At least I’ve got some of him”. Of course, there are obvious examples of false, wrong-headed love. But even the best of our loves contain that imperfection of self, of “my” of wanting a return. None of it is like the love that the near death patients describe as belonging to the Presence, surrounding It the way sunlight surrounds the sun.
But does even that perfect love demand a return? It’s not remotely like doormat love, even if it seems unconditional. It demands obedience, repentance. Yet not selfishly, to please the Presence. It demands these things not for its benefit, but for ours, because without them we’re incapable of receiving its love, just as a man covered from head to foot in filthy rags can’t benefit from the sunlight.
What all this means is that before we can even think of playing a role in the conflict with evil, before we can even think about love or loving, or doing good, or becoming good, we have to prepare ourselves in some way. Just as the man dressed in filthy rags has to take them off, and wash himself before he can bathe in the sunlight, so we have to get rid of a lot of things before we can hope to be of any use to the cause of good, and think of one day meeting that Presence without an overwhelming sense of shame.
There are two stages to any preparation. For a dinner party. For the Olympic Games. A love affair. For a battle. The first stage is to get rid of what’s not needed, or will get in the way, or will be actually harmful. The athlete hoping to be chosen for the Olympics has to get rid of bad habits, of commitments that would take up time needed for training, of temptations to self indulgence, over eating, drinking, staying up late.
Even someone arranging a dinner party has to clean the house, get rid of the garbage. The hopeful lover has to make sure an old, failed love affair won’t reappear in some way. The soldier going into battle has to leave behind everything that is not essential for war. And this applies ten times over to anyone setting out to become good. There is a school of thought, which claims that all one needs is to “profess Jesus” or some such phrase. This is like an overweight civilian expecting turn into a trained soldier by shouting, “Hail to the Chief”.
It doesn’t work like that for the army, and it doesn’t work like that in trying to become good. To imagine that real goodness is less demanding than a Marine Sergeant is a sad mistake. Becoming a Marine is tough – and so is becoming good. In both cases one has to get rid of excess weight, flabby muscles stupidity, sloppy habits, laziness, dirt. The excess weight and the flabby muscles are of different kinds, but the process is similar, and just as difficult in both cases. And just as the Marine Sergeant will take a new recruit and tell him what’s wrong with him, so the recruit to goodness needs to be told what’s wrong with him, or with her. Only he, she, has to be both recruit and sergeant in one. It has to be the harshest analysis the recruit has ever endured, and it has to be a self- analysis, because no one else knows the recruit well enough.
Only you are capable of knowing yourself down to the last depths and corners. But most of us refuse to know, refuse even to look. “I’m O.K.” “I’m no worse than anyone else”. “I’ve never done anything really bad”. “Everyone likes me”. All of which is camouflage, a barrier between us and the real truth about ourselves. The Californian cry is “know yourself in order to love yourself, accept yourself as you are!” The real call needs to be, “know yourself in order to change yourself, become something worth loving, worth accepting”. But before you can change yourself, you have to identify what needs changing. You have to identify your faults and weaknesses, and follies.
Not the ego-massaging faults we’re all eager to acknowledge. “Of course my worst fault is that I’m just too forgiving, I can never hold a grudge”. Or “of course everyone tells me I’m much too generous. I know it’s wrong, but I just can’t help myself. I’ve always been a giver”. Or, “I’m so soft- hearted I can never say no. It’s really wrong, I get taken in again and again, but I’m just made that way”.
We’re all ready to say with charming modesty how generous and forgiving and loving, patient, and brave we are, while pretending to see these virtues as serious faults. It’s like the man who claimed to be famous for his humility. But none of that is self-analysis. What we have to do is lift up the carefully white washed stone that we’ve laid over our private reality and look at what’s underneath. Cowardice? Meanness? Treachery? Lust? Greed? Anger? Vanity? Pride? Sloth? Cruelty? Malice?
“Mean? Me? Of course I don’t waste my money, I earned it too hard to throw it around. But I put my dollar in the collection every Sunday, –
Cowardice? If you’re saying I don’t pick fights, well, I’ve always believed a soft answer turneth away wrath. What’s wrong with that?
Lust? Well, I like to look at a good pair of legs, the same as anyone else” –
Wait. That’s not what we’re talking about, or rather, what you need to think about. We’re not concerned with broad principles but concrete facts, actual incidents. The time a friend begged for a loan and you didn’t give it although you could easily have afforded it, and you knew that she desperately needed it. You’ve found a dozen excuses for that ever since, whenever you’ve thought about it – but none of them are true. And there have been other times –
As for cowardice, we’re not talking about facing armed muggers in an alleyway – we’re talking about the time you could have defended someone’s reputation when the others were tearing it to pieces. You knew they were wrong. You knew you ought to speak up. And you didn’t. In fact, do you ever?
Lust? Do you remember that time in college? And that girl in the office? And all your daydreams over the magazine pictures you wouldn’t like anyone to know you keep hidden in a drawer?
Of course, none of those things apply to you. But unless you’re unique, other things do that need equally severe examination. And recognition. We have to start by admitting that these squalid truths about ourselves are truths. All of them. And not just the squalor. The stupidity. The way you behaved the other night after a couple of drinks too many. The incredibly stupid things you said about Alice and Henry. And what you did!
Then there are the weaknesses. Of course you’re not an alcoholic. Drink isn’t even a problem. Not the slightest problem. Except at parties when it’s so difficult to say no. Which is weakness.
Like eating too much. What, me? I eat like a bird! Then how come I’m so fat? Fat? I’m – well, I’m not exactly as slim as I was in college – who is? But fat? And if I put my mind to I could be a size 12 again inside a couple of weeks – well, maybe a couple of months – but honestly, I need to eat well. I have to keep up my strength – and then its so difficult not to have another scoop of ice cream – it’s not as if I was greedy –
Not greedy. Just weak. But why? What’s the harm? O.K. I’m a few pounds – well, a couple of stone overweight. So what? Is it a sin to enjoy one’s food? What sort of crank are you anyway? Talking about drinking too much and eating too much and its wrong to enjoy looking at centre page spreads – what have you got in your veins? Vinegar? The answer to all that is that we’re talking about you, and what you want to make of yourself. If you want to stay a fat civilian, who can stop you? Who wants to stop you? But you want to join the Marines, if you want to run in the Olympics if you want to become good – not just a nice fellow, a grand girl at parties – if you want to prepare yourself for that separate reality – then you have to make drastic changes in your life.
Which brings us to the second stage of preparation. Once you identified the things that need getting rid of, you have to replace them with things to keep. Cowardice has to become courage. Meanness has to become generosity. Lust has to become purity. Stupidity has to become wisdom. Weakness has to become strength.
How? By practice, by effort. And not just on the big occasions. Big occasions to practice virtue may never come. But every day there are small occasions, and they are the ones that count. Ten, twenty, fifty times a day we face moral choices, and we either make a bad choice or a good one. And whichever kind we make tends to become a habit.
We hear a piece of malicious gossip – malicious, but funny. Do we repeat it or not? On the side of repeating it there is all the pleasure of telling people something they are eager to hear – being in the know – being funny – one of the gang – Against repeating it is just the dull quality of being a bit of a prude. Except that in this case being a prude is right and being one of the gang is wrong. Then you’re in a hurry getting to work and that stupid fat old guy is in the way. Push past him? Or let him go first? On the side of pushing past is that he’s so goddam slow! He oughtn’t to be out on his own. Where the hell are his wheelchair and his nurse if he can’t walk faster than that? And then you’re younger, and stronger, and faster – and getting there first is what life means, even on a street crossing. On the side of not pushing past is nothing. Except that it will make that poor slow fat man’s day just that bit worse, to save you three seconds. And in the office? That stupid filing clerk with acne and a squint, who can never find anything you want. Yell at her? Or be kind? You can go through any day and find similar examples, similar choices; none of them “big”, a lot of them so small they’re almost invisible until you really look at them. But at the end of each day they make quite a total. The extra drink you know you ought to have refused at lunch. The moments of impatience, anger, unkindness, jealousy, and the small lies, the agreement with something you shouldn’t have agreed with, the shuffling off onto someone else of a job you ought to have done yourself, the pretence when you got home that you’d had a really hard day –
All that has to change. And the only way we can change it is to be constantly on the watch for every temptation to make wrong choices.
Temptation? Temptation means being tempted to commit sins; adultery, theft, murder – it hasn’t anything to do with being too lazy to help with the washing up, or wanting to repeat a bit of gossip? The answer to that is that temptation has to do with everything. And it’s one of the two chief weapons used by evil in the battle against goodness. Fear is the other. And not just fear of being martyred, or crucified on Main Street for being a saint. Fear of being laughed at, thought a prig or a wimp, fear of being misunderstood, fear of what people will say.
And the moment you decide to try to become good, those weapons will be employed against you, often enough by your nearest and dearest, as was said earlier. “Why won’t you have another drink?’ And “You must have heard something? Tell me!” Or “I used to think you were a regular guy. What’s got into you lately?”
Does this mean that people close to you, even dear to you, are now setting out to harm you, prevent you from becoming good? No. In fact the opposite. In their minds they may well believe they are trying to save you – from becoming a puritan, a lunatic – they’re trying to bring you back to “reality” – their reality.
But someone is using them, or several someones, who do mean you harm – in fact more than harm. They mean your destruction. Because when you set out to become good you are challenging their power, their authority over you and over this world. You’ve chosen to take part in a war which they have no intention of losing. And they have no intention of losing you. Without in the least knowing it, or intending it, you used to be their humble but useful servant – their servant simply by not standing up to them, not defying. You went along with them and that was all they required of you – at least for the time being. Now you’ve dared to rebel, and they mean to punish you, and bring you back to abject, tearful obedience.
They’ll use a combination of temptation and threats, carrots and sticks. Very desirable things will suddenly come your way – only to take advantage of them you’ll have to sacrifice your new resolutions. An illicit love affair that seemed impossible – only now, suddenly, your wife, husband is going to be safely away for a month. Or a promotion you never expected is offered you – but of course it means closing your eyes to something you know is very wrong. The promotion is to keep you quiet. Or there’s a nice profit to be made in a parcel of shares. Of course it’s insider trading, but no one could ever find out, so why not?
Then there are more direct attacks. The children seem to be going out of their way to drive you mad. Aunt Liz, who was always a bit difficult, seems to have turned into a female Attila the Hun. And people you thought you could count on for anything seem to have turned into enemies, who take your new resolutions as personal insults, or proofs of insanity.
Why did you turn down that promotion, upset the boss, go all pious about making a profit? What the hell has got into you saying you can’t betray Margaret, Harry? Let me tell you, Saint Francis, no one turns me down like that without getting something by return mail. How about my letting Harry, Margaret know about you and that tennis player last summer? And about what happened in Colorado? You think I won’t? Oh, just you wait and see!
Then, patience. You never realised before just how rude people are, everywhere. Shops, the street, the bus, the subway – trying to be polite, not to snarl back, not to be impatient, is like putting up an umbrella in a gale – it just gets blown away. People seem determined to trample you into the pavement. And at home, things you never really noticed before become like cheese graters on your nerves. For heaven’s sake, have the kids got to watch that stupid programme on T.V. while I’m trying to drink coffee? Why aren’t they out waiting for the school bus? And the way grandmother clicks her teeth; she’s like a deathwatch beetle. If she goes on any longer I’m going to tell her the name of a good dentist. And did you ever realise cousin Pamela actually smells? While that husband of hers – if a jackass could talk that’s exactly how he’d do it. And the way he eats! Or in the office – if Peterson tells one of his jokes this morning I’m going to tell him just how stupid he is, I just can’t bear it any more. And the boss! And her dumb secretary – anyone can see they’re a pair of dykes. Why should I have to put up with that bitch looking at me as if I was the queer one? She gets at me on purpose. I know it.
Then marriage – after ten, fifteen years you get used to it being boring – but it’s suddenly got so irritating. She says the same things over and over, like a parrot. What kind of mind has she got? Made of jell-o? And her friends! What a bunch! While the wife suddenly sees her husband as not just dull, but a creep. As if a curtain was suddenly pulled back to show him as he really is. The way he picks his nose as if I wasn’t there! And if I find another pair of his socks under the sofa I’ll burn them. Then the noise he makes when he’s eating. How does he do it? Why does he do it?
Then, apart from all those external things, there are strange interior troubles. Anxieties about nothing. Depressions. A feeling you may be getting ill. Actual illness. And a sense that all these factors are connected, external and internal – that it’s all to do with trying to change your life. Like sticking your fist into a wasps’ nest. No wonder you get stung. Why have you done it? Weren’t things O.K. as they were before? All this nonsense about good resolutions – you’ve upset everything, and everyone, yourself included. Why not give it up?
Which is exactly what your attackers want. Because there are attackers, and you are under attack. Evil spirits do exist. The question is, do you surrender? Go back to being what you were? Serving evil simply by not opposing it? Or do you stand your ground and defend yourself? And if you do, how?
When we decide to enter a demanding service, whether it’s the army, or nursing, or anything else that requires true dedication, giving things up, getting rid of bad habits, is only the beginning. The next stage is to put good habits in their place – discipline instead of sloppiness, smartness instead of scruffiness, concentration instead of woolly mindedness, obedience to orders instead of rebelliousness, eagerness instead of laziness.
Becoming good is even more demanding. Recruits to the army, student nurses, apprentice footballers, post graduate physicists, still have time off, holidays, relaxation – they can lose patience with one another, get angry, feel proud, have affairs. You can’t. Becoming good, really good, requires total commitment every minute of every waking hour.
Not only must you struggle to avoid doing wrong. You have to struggle to do right. Not only do you have to avoid saying things which serve evil – and it’s amazing how things we say do serve evil, again, and again – we have to learn how to stay silent, and when we do speak, say something which serves good and not evil. We also have to learn to control our thoughts – not simply to avoid wrong, unpleasant, unkind, unclean thoughts, but to think only the way we should think. The kind of thoughts we won’t mind that Presence seeing in our minds.
Impossible? No. Difficult? Yes. Very difficult. So is hacking a computer. So is skydiving. But they can be done. So can this. Take marriage, which is the central fact in most people’s lives, for ill or for good. Boring? Irritating? Maddening? Something to escape from? Or a meal ticket to cling to? Or a means of having sex on tap? Or of exercising power? Or simply a means of having an heir? Or something that just happened you hardly know how? Or a cheap way – or an expensive one – of having clean socks when you need them? Or someone to pay the mortgage? Something that’s just a bit better than not being married. But not much.
How hard have you – or anyone you know – worked at marriage? You’ve worked very hard – good. Wonderful. But take John and Harriet, five years married and heading for divorce already. And Sarah and Bill. And the Gonellas. And the Simpsons. And your sister and brother-in-law. Have they really tried? Or just got tired, bored? Found that the big sex drive that brought them together has just faded into nothing? Two children in four years, nappies, being woken up every night, the expenses, being too tired to make love at least the wife is – and giving birth isn’t fun – it stays in a woman’s mind. Nothing is like those first months of real bliss. The husband comes home late more and more often. What is there to come home to? Babies crying, a smell of piss in the living room, do they have to do it on the carpet? What are nappies for, for Pete’s sake? And how he ever thought his wife was beautiful beats all. She looks grey – like the laundry. You expect me to wear a shirt like this to the sales conference? And if that’s what’s for dinner I’m going out.
It takes a lot of effort to turn this round. On both sides. All he thinks of is sex. Does he think I made the kids all by myself? Just to annoy him? I know he’s lying about doing overtime four nights, five nights in a row. Does he think I’m an imbecile? I know I don’t read the papers any more. I know I don’t know what’s going on in the world. I’m too tired to think, let alone read, or watch the TV news. Anyway, the only thing I ever see on TV is those damn turtles. It’s the only thing that keeps the kids quiet.
His shirts? His dinner? Does he think I’m his housekeeper? |I have a B.A. in Eng. Lit. I used to write poetry. And here I am knee deep in nappies, TV dinners, and dirty shirts. Let me out!
How do you turn it round? Making the effort is hard enough. The patient answers to the maddeningly stupid accusation. The extra effort. The refusal to get into a fight when your mind is screaming, “kill him!” – “Tell her what a total bitch she’s become!” The effort of backing down, being the one to give in, surrenders. To let him – her – triumph over you. To say you’re sorry. You’ll try harder. All that can stretch to the limit. But there’s worse to come – because the olive branch you hold out is likely either to get snatched out of your hand and trampled underfoot – or used to give you a hefty lash across the face. “I’ve been telling you were a slut for years – so at last you admit it. Okay, so do I get a clean shirt now?”
You didn’t say you were a slut. You just said you were sorry about the shirt. Or the dinner. Or the carpet. Or about being always tired. Or the kids making such a racket. Or the state of the house. Or not looking the way you did five years ago. Doesn’t he understand anything? What’s the use of trying to be good if he just throws it back at me? If I go on with this patience and forgiveness effort any longer I’ll wind up more of a doormat than I’ve been all along.
And on the man’s side? Not answering back when she screams at him. Apologising for being late. Bringing flowers. Saying he’s sorry about that last quarrel. And the one before. And the many before that. “I know how tired you must be. The kids. The house. The yard. Everything. And the supermarket. And your mother”-
Only to see the flowers tossed in the garbage. More screams. Don’t you dare bring my mother into this. Do you think I’ve believed a word about you being kept late at the office? You think a bunch of lousy flowers can make up for anything? On and on, as if apologising, trying to make amends, has been taken as a sign of weakness, an invitation to move in for the kill.
What do you do? Back off and get tough again? Stop trying to make things work. Or keep trying and become a doormat, without achieving anything? Because being a doormat doesn’t achieve anything – except to serve evil. It means encouraging someone else to behave badly, simply by letting him or her get away with it. The real answer is to keep trying without becoming a doormat – which is immensely difficult, but still possible. It involves not only forgiveness, patience, tolerance, humility – but also firmness, wisdom and the development of moral authority.
The general idea of being good is of being a wimp – eyes turned up to heaven, hands clasped in ineffective prayer, and total uselessness in the face of any real aggression. Most of this comes from the image in the New Testament of Jesus allowing himself to be crucified. But the people – like Hitler, who regarded Christianity as the ultimate degradation, of Aryan, Nordic, heroic Man, – the people who have this idea of goodness have obviously never read the book. You may choose to think the book is fiction, that Jesus was a solar myth, or else just a heretic Jewish Rabbi who got into trouble with the Romans – but the book, the New Testament, draws a portrait of a very strong man, fact or fiction. He was crucified because He permitted it, not out of weakness, but from His own free choice, because He knew it was the right choice to make. Even with Pontius Pilate, who in physical ways held all power over Him, He exercised moral authority. From the beginning of His public life this was the thing people noticed about Him – He speaks as one having authority – to such an extent that they also said – look even the demons obey Him!
That is the ideal at which you have to aim. And it is a possible ideal. Because first of all, demons, evil spirits, spectres, call them what you like – the Enemy – have only as much power over you as you give them. If you are afraid of them, they grow strong. If you desire what they offer you, they grow even stronger. But if you are unafraid – and they can do you no harm if you show no fear of them – and if you reject their poisoned gifts – then they are as powerless as shadows. You have already gained authority over them. Oddly enough, to gain authority over human beings, particularly over human beings who know you well and know all your weaknesses and follies and vices and past failures, is much harder. There is also the added problem that such people, no matter how they have complained about the way you were, seem even angrier about the way you are trying to become. Change, any change, particularly in someone, some element in their lives as familiar as you, is not only unwelcome; it is in an obscure way a threat.
Fat girls who slim, face the worst opposition not from their longing for pizzas and chocolate bars, but very often from their families. Alcoholics trying to reform can find the people closest to them are the ones who try to keep them drinking. Nonsense? You know fat girls who have lost 10 stone to the cheers of their families? Undoubtedly you’ve known alcoholics whose families pray daily to see them become sober. But ask Weight Watchers; ask Alcoholics Anonymous family opposition can be a substantial problem. And in the case of moral reform the opposition is almost certain.
“What’s got into you? You were a louse, but at least you weren’t a creepy louse. All this forgiving bit – I don’t get it. What’s more I don’t believe it. What are you up to?” And because forgiveness, and tolerance, and patience, and humility are taken for weakness, the family moves in for the kill. Fear gone, malice takes over. “At least you used to be a man!” Teenage sons once kept in check by fear of a belt across the ear, or a brutal dressing down show contempt for a father who has “gone soft”. A husband, whose wife once held her own by shrill abuse, and violent anger, now feels comfortably safe in treating her badly.
You’re objecting that this is not a bit like your wonderful marriage. Of course it’s not. We’re not talking about good people like you who have no need of any sort of moral reform. We’re talking about bad people, weak, stupid, foolish, lazy, greedy, vain people who have a lot of need for it. But it’s even possible that you yourself have one or two weak areas. We might hit on those later.
But given the problems of reforming one’s character inside a marriage – is it worth it? Reform, yes yes yes. But staying in a lousy marriage? No no no. After all, nine tenths of the need for reform has been caused by the marriage, hasn’t it? If only she understood me! If she even tried. God knows I’ve always wanted to be a good husband – a good wife. I never meant to be a shit. Who does? Looking back over the years I can honestly say she – he – drove me to it. To drink. Adultery. Violence. Her voice! Like a chain saw. On and on. The way he drinks, you’d think he had holes in his stomach.
Yeah, sure I hit her. But after what? Three hours of solid nagging until I thought I’d lose my mind. I guess I did lose it for a couple of minutes. I really wopped her. And you know what? She respected me for it. I guess a woman likes a guy to be a real man once in a while. Of course it mustn’t ever happen again – I’m not some kind of gorilla. But if she doesn’t let up on me it will happen again, I know it. I want to become a different sort of guy. I really do. I’m never going to be one of those saints, don’t make me laugh; I’m not that crazy. But I would like to respect myself, to be able to look myself in the mirror and think. ”You’re O.K. you’re a decent fellow”. But I don’t see it happening so long as I’m tied to Monica. God, the kids are grown up, we hardly ever see them. What is there to stay for? More nagging? She can’t even cook.
And the wife says. “Why should I stay? I earn enough to keep the kids. He never sees them anyway, except maybe Sunday mornings, and he’s so hung-over he thinks they’re from next door. I really want to try this thing, become a different person. I know there’s a lot wrong with me, it’s not all his fault”. But if you’re going to sail out to sea you have to pull up the anchor and go free.
Almost the first temptation to beckon anyone who sets out to change their life is that of changing their surroundings. ”If I was free of him – of her. If I didn’t have to see the same people every day that I used to hang round with. If I could find somewhere new – a new life. A new place to live it, huh?” A hermitage. The top of a mountain. A cabin in the woods. Maybe a commune growing organic food. If I was with a bunch pf fellows and girls trying to do the same thing I’m doing that’d be great. We could talk about it – face our problems together. Like – almost like one of those monasteries, only mixed. Not that I want sex, hell, I’ve had enough of that, it was half the trouble. But just to be with a few girls, a few fellows – it’d make it all seem more natural”.
It’s such a tempting temptation. It’s so reasonable. But it’s also wrong. The place to learn to be good is the place where you’ve been bad. The people we need to be with, to become good alongside, are the people we’ve injured by not being good. We think it would be easier somewhere else. It wouldn’t. “That somewhere else” would have its own, new problems. The new people would be just as difficult to get along with. And we’d leave debts behind. Like a slut, male or female, who moves house rather than clean up the one they’ve dirtied.
We have to stay put. We have to try to pay our debts, moral as well as material. It may not work. Our offers of repayment may be rejected beyond all hope of acceptance. The marriage may end in spite of everything you do. But you have to make it absolutely certain that you really have done everything you could to make amends.
Why do you have to try so hard to mend a breaking marriage? What’s so sacred about a marriage when there’s no love left? There are several answers, each of them needing to be examined before you reject them. First – you’ve occupied and used an important part of someone else’s life for a number of years. And you’ve spent a considerable part of your own. Have you so many years left that you can discard the ones you’ve spent together, as if they were old clothes?
Next, if there are children, they need both of you, together? If the children are grown up they still need both of you – and their children need both of you. Do you want to offer these descendants of yours an example of failure, of characters so feeble that although they could make children together they couldn’t live together? Or do you want to offer them an example of people who know how to overcome difficulties. If you offer them a poor, weak example, it will encourage them to be poor and weak too. “Marriages crack up. It’s just the way things go. It happened my grandparents. And my parents. So what’s new?”
If you offer them a good example they may not follow it but at least it’s there.
Even if there are no children, you are still offering an example to the people who know you, for good or for bad. But again, why does it matter? What’s so bad about divorce? Love ends. So people separate and find someone else they can love. Love makes the world go round. You never heard that?
Yes. But what most people call love is an itch in the groin. It used to be called lust. Or if it’s better than that it’s still a shallow emotion that has no real roots, or no roots at all, like cut flowers. The difference between that sort of love and real love is the difference between a bunch of roses bought in a flower shop and a rose bush bought in a nursery garden. The bunch of roses loses colour, the petals fall, and the water in the vase begins to stink. The rose bush goes on blooming.
But the rose bush needs attention. Good soil. Good sun, shade, and water. Fertiliser. Pruning.
Love, real, love, needs those things too. The good soil is in the minds of the lovers. Sun, shade, fertiliser consist of common sense, patience, decency, kindness – and small “acts of love” as often as each can make them. Acts of giving. Not of things. Not diamonds or gold bracelets or even chocolates and theatre tickets, although those can help. But acts of thoughtfulness. To do the washing up when you know your partner is tired. You’re tired too – but you make a small sacrifice. A lot of small sacrifices. In brief, you don’t regard marriage as a means of getting things – sex, cooking, the mortgage paid, the laundry seen to, the house cleaned, not having to go out to work anymore – but of giving. Giving attention, giving affection, listening instead of always telling, finding out what he – she – really wants, really needs, instead of just demanding what you want.
Love, real love, doesn’t come ready made, like an engagement ring. Or the bunch of roses. It has to be grown, like the rose bush. People who do work at it, do make it grow; find they love each other more at sixty than they did at thirty. Their love is the growth of thirty years of effort.
But as was just said, rose bushes need pruning. And that’s where moral authority comes in. Love needs pruning as well as fertilising. If one of the partners has wrong habits, bad habits, does things that threaten love, threaten the marriage then those habits have to be corrected, not tolerated. Love isn’t lying down to be walked on. Love has to involve mutual respect.
How does “pruning” work in marriage? The same as anywhere else, only with gentle kindness as well as firmness, courtesy as well as certainty. If you do something wrong at work, you’ll be told to sharpen up, and if not trouble is going to follow. In marriage there needs to be velvet glove over the steel, but the Steel needs to be there. Not the kind of steel the boss uses – “the boss is always right” kind. But a much wiser approach that concentrates on the question at hand. The partner exercising the pruning – and in most marriages this will need to be a turn and turn about process – the one doing the pruning, exercising moral authority, needs to say. “On this issue this is the right choice”. Not “I’m right” but “this is right”. What you’ve been doing – what you want to do – is wrong. You must not do it”.
And the person saying it has to be ready to stick to it, no matter what. How? There are as many answers to that as there are marriages. And if the partner doing this pruning has spent the last ten years failing to be firm, giving in to wrong choices, its obviously going to be hard to turn a bad situation around. They won’t achieve it overnight, if ever. But they must try.
Again, why? One marriage in three ends in divorce. Maybe one in every two in some states. What’s so bad about that? People make a mistake at twenty, twenty-five. They put it behind them and make a better choice. The American way of life hasn’t come to an end because of divorce. England, Sweden haven’t become bad countries because unhappy couples can try again. Every country in the world that has the chance chooses divorce laws. Italy, Spain, et al. –
Yes. Whether this has made for more happiness or less is still a matter for argument. A lot of children would say it hasn’t. A lot of abandoned, middle aged wives would say it hasn’t. Even some abandoned husbands. But the point is not whether a woman should be allowed to get rid of a drunken, brutal, sadistic husband who rapes his teenage daughters, but whether ordinary, decent people should give up on marriage as easily as they do – like trading in a three year old automobile for this year’s model – more glamour, more chrome, built in stereo. If nothing else it’s a waste. A waste of years. Of love. Of the opportunity for real love.
And the children. Children need stability. They need discipline, they need control – wise, loving, but still control – they need to learn that no means no. That happiness needs be earned. That if we want this, we have to be willing to sacrifice that. They have to learn to give as well as take. They need to learn to be good people. Unselfish instead of selfish, know how to make moral choices, and make the right ones. And you are the only people who are in a real position to teach them those things. School? Maybe the teachers will warn them about drugs, AIDS, casual sex. But the teachers’ real job is to teach them to read and write, spell and count, learn astro-physics and biology. How to be engineers. Maybe they can also tell them stealing is wrong, and swearing and fighting. But you’re the ones, you their father, you their mother, who see them, and see to them, sixteen hours out of the twenty-four. At meals. At weekends. At night. Early morning. Or you should be.
Unless you’re too busy fighting, swearing, quarrelling, sulking, drinking – or even locking them out of a large part of your lives because you “love” each other so much you’ve no time left for them. One extreme is bad – almost – as the other. The next generation’s future is in your hands. What kind of example are you giving it? Weakness? Self pity? Self indulgence? Bitterness? Malice? Selfishness of every kind?
There’s also a kind of “love” for children that does as much harm as neglect.- – Indeed it is neglect of what’s really needed. It means giving in to them, whatever they want. TV at all hours. Too many gimcrack toys. Too much pocket money. The wrong kind of food because “that’s what they want”. Bought-in pizzas eaten squatting on the floor in front of the TV Instead of home cooking at the dinner table. “But what can I do? It’s such a fight if they don’t have their own way. And Tom’s no help, he just wants peace and quiet – it’s the only way to get it”. Or else “I’d put some discipline on them, but Mary won’t let me, she just dotes on those kids”.
Maybe. But she’s still ruining them. And he’s letting her do it. Not because they really love them, but because they want to be loved by them. They are afraid that if they try to discipline their children their children will cease to love them. Which is a totally wrong choice as well as untrue. The children will love them better, love them as real parents, if the parents exercise firm, wise control. And the bottom line is that a parent’s job is not to bribe his, her children to love them, but to turn them into good people; responsible, disciplined, unselfish humane and wise adults. Anything less is failure – and the parents fault.
Of course there are bad children – children who are going to turn out badly no matter what anyone does for them – but even those poor souls are not going to be helped or improved by spoiling and being indulged in their selfishness.
Which is why marriages matter. You, as a parent, are the key to the future. The politicians and economists can design the future, but you are the one who is creating the citizens to live that future, carry out that design, or improve it.
And it needs both parents to achieve this. Not a mother and step-father. Not a father and step mother – because however nice a step-parent is in himself, herself – and they may be wonderful people – the simple fact of a step-parent’s existence is evidence of failure, unless the real parent is dead. The child looks at the step-parent and can’t help saying, feeling “She’s not my mother. He’s not my real father. He – she – didn’t love me enough to stay with me, keep on looking after me”.
But there is even more to the question of marriage and its responsibilities than this, and its effects on our society, our reality. It affects the separate reality too. When we are weak, foolish, bad, we not only open ourselves to temptations by evil, we open a gateway for evil to enter this world. It flows through us like toxic waste through a drain. Our submission to evil spreads evil. We infect the people round us. Our bad example encourages others to follow it. And evil, evil beings, evil spirits, the evil inhabitants of that separate reality use us, can take possession of us, tyrannise us through our weakness, our fear, our desires. We become their slaves. And while by themselves they are no more than shadows, with us as a tool they can create misery, destruction, evil all round us. Which is their whole ambition.
You don’t believe this? You don’t want to believe it? It would make life too scary, too fantastic if it were true? Maybe it would. But lets take a couple of examples, one very big one, and one very small. Everyone knows about Hitler. He was ridiculous. He had a ridiculous moustache. He was a nothing. And he climbed into such power that he was responsible for the deaths of fifty million people – and more terror and misery than anyone could quantify. How did it happen? Libraries of books have been written to explain it. Economics. Sociology. Mass psychology. The Treaty of Versailles. The German passion to obey… Racism.
All of these factors had a part to play. But all of them added together fail to explain how that small, insignificant failed painter did what he did. It only begins to become intelligible when you add one more factor – evil. Not the obvious fact that the Nazi leaders were bad men. That explains nothing. What needs explaining is how those particular bad men achieved such power. The ludicrous Goering. The futile Hess. The other misfits and madmen. The clerk Himmler. The fawning Goebbels. No one seeing them together could have imagined them running a town council. Yet they came close to ruling half the world, and destroying it. If they had had the physical means they would have destroyed it. As it is we are still recovering from them.
The answer – carefully and deliberately avoided at the Nuremberg Trials – is that they worshipped evil, were possessed by evil, and used by evil. They created an opening into our world through which evil poured in a great flood of poison. You may not want to believe in this – but they did. The evidence for their belief in it exists – and their monstrous achievements and destruction are evidence that their belief was based on reality. The separate reality. The evil side of it.
You still don’t want to believe it? Then find an explanation that explains just as well and fits better. Explain the holocaust. Explain how an Austrian corporal came to rule Germany, conquer Western Europe and half of Russia bring civilised, artistic, religious people, the Germans, to the point where they acquiesced in the massacres of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the physically and mentally handicapped, Slavs, Communists, anyone who raised a voice against their wicked madness.
Explain how this squalid little pervert imposed his tyranny on the aristocrats, the bankers, the Officer Corps, the General Staff – even on the clergy, so that a Cardinal Archbishop declared in a sermon that he thanked God for being granted such a leader as Herr Hitler. Bishops praised him. Doctors, nurses psychiatrists obeyed him – against every article of their training, their traditions. So did civil servants. Soldiers. Sailors. Generals. Officials. All of them people who knew right from wrong – who had been brought up as Christians – as Lutherans or Catholics or Baptists – who had been taught from childhood that evil exists and must be resisted.
But they did not resist it. They read the new laws as they were, published. They heard the rumours. They saw the Jews harassed, then tormented, insulted, spat on, beaten – then taken away to “unknown” destinations. And they did nothing, said nothing. Because Germans are monsters? cowards? Or because in some extraordinary way they were hypnotised, mesmerised by the strutting Nazi leaders, by that strutting Charlie Chaplin figure – by the evil that possessed him, spread round him, poured through him? Because that evil exploited their weaknesses, once it was allowed in? Until each one of them, every German, every one of Hitler’s subjects, became himself, herself, a small gateway for evil – turning this little bureaucrat into Adolph Eichmann, that insignificant girl into a concentration camp guard who whipped Jewish women to death for her pleasure. This doctor into a Mengele, this architect into a Speer, that plain soldier into a murderer, that woman who once had a good Jewish friend into a trembling coward who turned her one time friend away. That dull civil servant into a clerk who kept records of Jewish deaths as if they were just one more set of statistics. That plodding police official into a Gestapo agent who tortured prisoners, day after day, year after year, until he no longer heard the screams.
Racism? Mass hysteria? The Depression? Or something much, much more powerful even than those?
Or take a very small example, compared to the Holocaust and all that went with it. Take a dull, colourless little man living in a dull, colourless London suburb, who killed thirteen people over the years, dissolving them in acid. Why? How? What drove him, numbed him to humanity? Psychological disturbance? A deprived childhood? A grudge against the world? Or possession? By an evil spirit that used him, guided him, and then in final contempt abandoned him to his punishment, so that his evil could be exposed, known – and perhaps imitated.
To close one’s eyes to these things, to refuse to examine them or to try to explain them away with comfortable arguments comfortable in the sense that they cause us the least possible discomfort – is like closing one’s eyes to the existence of famine in Africa or poverty in Latin America. A doctor who doesn’t believe in the existence of viruses is not going to get very far in healing the sick.
And anyone who refuses to believe in evil – in evil beings who want to control and destroy us – is not going to get very far in protecting this world – or his or her tiny share of it – from the horrors threatening it. Which is the real reason you are trying to change your life – not so much for your own sake, although of course that enters into it – but for other people’s sake – your family, your friends, everyone you know, everyone you meet – even people you’ll never know, never realise you met – but who will be influenced by your example, if only by seeing you once, across a room, in the street – recognising something special about you. Something that you certainly won’t recognise in yourself – but that will be there.
That something that other people will recognise in you – if you decide to make the effort and begin to succeed – is what was referred to as being a lit candle. But a lighted candle has to have its flame fed by oxygen – and the effort to change one’s life also has to be fed, by the equivalent of oxygen – and that equivalent is the making of a continuing series of right choices.
There are two main difficulties about this. One is to carry through the right choice. And that can be very hard. But the other difficulty can be even harder at times – and that is to know which is the right choice.
Like everyone else, you have two immediate means of knowing what to do, reason and conscience. But both need to be developed, trained – and one of the greatest of modern tragedies is that a lot of people receive no training at all in making moral choices – or worse still, they receive the wrong kind of training. They are taught, for example, that there are no absolute choices, no absolute standards of right and wrong, no absolutes of good and evil. “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so”. All we have are situations, and “situation ethics”. In this situation, such and such a choice is right. In a different situation, the same choice would be wrong. What governs it is one’s own convenience.
Does this choice suit me, now? Maybe my parents tell me not to do this, or I must do that. But what do my parents know about it? They’re not in my situation.
This teaching must sit very uneasily against or beside teaching about drugs – learn to say No – and about AIDS – stick to safe sex – and presumably some sort of indication that theft, murder, rape and violent assaults are wrong. But situation ethics and the idea that there are no moral absolutes seem to be gaining ground at the expense of all other kinds of moral teaching.
Anyone who tries to say that there are moral absolutes is being “judgemental” or a “moral fascist”. This frightens off a lot of people who feel instinctively that there must be standards. And one ought to keep them. But since so many people say the opposite, and that it’s wrong to believe in such outmoded, medieval absolutes, they never train themselves to recognise and obey them.
It does need training. Christians used to talk about an “informed conscience” and perhaps they still do. This meant conscience developed by reason, and trained and formed by the particular branch of Christianity the speaker belonged to. But since at times this led to the burning of witches, heretics and Jews, the approval of men thrashing their wives and children, the toleration of slavery, the belief that unbaptised babies were condemned to hell along with everyone else who was not that kind of Christian, and various other forms of intolerance, it was an uncertain guide.
Yet your reason, your intellect, does need to be trained, as everyone recognises. So does your conscience. Good parents do this with their children almost without needing to think about it. Don’t push your little brother; he’s smaller than you are. Don’t snatch the bread at table. Go and help that old lady carry her parcels. Say please. Say thank you. Don’t tell tales about your sister, I don’t want to hear them. Where did you get those crayons? Go and give them back. Stealing is wrong. Heaven help the child that doesn’t get this kind of training, and who’s left to depend on school and TV to form his or her conscience.
But the best trained intellect and the best formed conscience can meet problems that seem insoluble – or at least where no solution is obviously the right one. We know that as a guiding principle we need to be kind and not unkind. Unselfish and not selfish. Firm and not weak. But in a given situation, how do we combine those three principles?
And here of course the promoters of situation ethics cry triumphantly “I told you! You have to judge by situations, and not by absolutes. You contradicted that, and now a moment later you’re saying the same thing – it depends on the situation! Victory for me!”
No. What “situation ethics” are really claiming is that in any problem, the right answer is the one that suits you. What’s being claimed here is the opposite – that the truly right answer is the one that suits the problem.
Take a situation. It’s a family Christmas. The mother is cooking the Christmas dinner, helped by the daughter. The father and the two boys go out for drinks. They come back drunk. What does the mother do? What should she do? Be kind and “unselfish” and say nothing, just smile and serve up the dinner, even though its been shriveling in the oven for the past several hours? Get mad and throw it out of the window? Go home to her mother? Yell? Go to bed? Cry? Start lecturing?
Intellect plus conscience could point to almost any of these answers, and one would need to know a lot more before one could decide. For instance, is this sort of behaviour usual in the men of the family? If it is, how has she reacted previously? Why did she put up with it? Has she encouraged it? By creating or accepting a tradition where the women do the work on such occasions and the men go off to amuse themselves? If she has, then a large part of the blame falls to her and she needs to recognise it.
If she hasn’t put up with it, has made scenes, lectured, thrown things, but it still happens, then obviously she either hasn’t found the right answer yet, or the husband and sons are incurable. Or else, you may be saying, they’re within their male rights to come home drunk at Christmas, and she’s a spoilsport for objecting.
The absolute moral answer is that they are not within their male rights. They’re acting like pigs. And she has been absolutely wrong in allowing things to reach a point where they regard such behaviour as a right. But how does she set about correcting it, at that particular moment?
The exact answer can depend on a hundred different factors, but one thing is certain. She has to find an answer. She has to start making changes. And that has to begin with herself. She has to recognise that up until now she has been weak, foolish and wrong. She has not only harmed herself she has harmed her family. And when her sons and daughters have families of their own, they are likely to be harmed by the bad example she gave of weakness and folly.
Yet the odd thing is that a lot of people will regard her weakness and stupidity as goodness. “Poor Jane is a real saint. How she puts up with that husband and those boys of hers I’ll never know. I wish I had half her patience!”
She’s not a saint. She’s not good. She’s a cretin. And a harmful one. She hasn’t been a good wife, a good mother, or a good woman. She has been a failure. But suppose she decides at that Christmas moment to change – to change herself and try to change her family, how does she do it? What exactly does she do then, given all the factors that no one else knows?
The only thing she can do at once is make the decision. Carrying it through is going to take time, and countless other decisions and choices. For which so far she has no training, no experience, and no guidelines. And as was said earlier, the harder she tries to become good, to become what she ought to be, to do what she ought to do, the more she’ll be tempted to give up the struggle, the more she’ll be attacked and terrorised by threats and anxieties, the more her friends are likely to tell her she’s doing everything wrong. And of course the more her own family will object to her rebellion.
On the face of it this is a hopeless situation, in which the only two possibilities are to let things go on as before, or else leave. But it would be very strange if, when one tries to be good, no help was ever available, and only enemies came to you. That separate reality often appears to be solely in the grip of evil, but remember the Presence, waiting for the people who tell about their near death experiences. It was transcendently good, loving, caring, interested in what those people had done – and in their doing still better once It had sent them back to our world. Is it really logical to believe that having sent them back it would simply abandon them to be attacked and tempted by evil, with no help from good? From Itself, or from Its servants, from good beings? It’s like imagining the Mayor of a city wringing his hands about crime but not setting up a police force. Telling the citizens to avoid crime, but refusing to provide any protection against criminals.
To believe that the Presence fails to do what we do automatically is to imagine that we are morally superior to It – and the near-death experiences tell us very positively that that is not so. If It wants us to become good, to be good, to behave rightly, then It must be willing to help us. Not in cases where we clearly are able to help ourselves, if we want to. Not in cases where we know the obvious choices to make, although even there It will surely see to it that we are given the strength we need, if making that choice seems beyond our own strength. But in cases where we simply can’t know which way to turn. We want to make the right choice, but there seems no way of knowing which is the right one.
How can we find out? How can we reach that Presence? Or allow it to reach us? Do we have to suffer a near death experience? Obviously not. The way is through our minds, just as evil reaches us through our minds. We can, if we are weak enough and foolish enough, listen to evil, listen to evil spirits, listen to voices that tempt us to do wrong. And sometimes those siren voices seem so “real” it’s as if someone else was in the room with us, inside our head, in us, that it’s like being spoken to by a companion. And in the deepest sense the voices are real, and so are the “companions”.
But if we can listen to evil voices, so we can listen to good ones. Only there are rules. Not complicated, but hard to follow, rather like golf. Swing the club back and down and hit the ball. It’s simple to say and hard to do. And listening to – listening for – a good “voice” is the same. In part its like listening to your conscience, but not identical because even conscience has its limits. It tells you to choose right, but it can’t always tell you what is right. The Churches step in eagerly here and say that they will tell you what’s right. But since they so often and so clearly choose wrong themselves, this is not a convincing claim.
So how should one listen? First of all, in as clean a state as possible – mentally clean. You have to have done as much for yourself as possible before you start asking for outside help. Then, you have to ask for that help without demanding that it be of a particular kind. “Please make me well. “Please see to it I earn more money”. “Please stop him being such a brute to me”. “Please tell her not to be such a bitch “ – this type of old fashioned prayer or cry for help is very understandable – although rarely answered – but is not what we’re concerned with. The real plea is “I don’t know what to do. Please tell me. And I’m ready to do whatever you do tell me, no matter what it costs, no matter how painful, so long as I’m sure its good”.
Ah! How can you be sure its good, when the need to ask arises from the fact that at this point you don’t know what is good, and what is wrong? The answer is really simple. If the choice you are told to make goes against your conscience, you have to reject it. It comes from the, wrong source. If it doesn’t, if it seems morally right, but simply unexpected, and difficult, then accept it.
Let’s go back to the woman with the drunken family on Christmas Eve. Lets suppose that during the long wait for the men to come back from the bars she’s decided she has to change – herself, and the whole family situation. She’s been feeling her way to this decision for a long time, but tonight is the turning point. From now on, things have got to be different. But how? How does she start?
Without even thinking of what she is doing she asks for help. “What do I do? Please, someone, somewhere, tell me. I realise this is as much my fault as theirs. I’ve let it happen. I’ve let them walk on me. I thought that was the right thing to do, good, unselfish; to be the traditional forgiving wife who puts up with everything. And I realise now after twenty years that I’ve been wrong, wrong, wrong. I’ve allowed my husband, my sons, turn into selfish pigs, monsters, without lifting a finger to stop them. I’ve encouraged them to do it. What can I do now to start putting things right? What can I do?”
And two temptations, two caressing tempting answers come at once. “Its too late to do anything. Except run away. Leave them to it. Save yourself and your daughter. Your mother, your sister, your brother, and your friend Sally will tell you it’s gone too far. It’s all their fault anyway. It’s not yours. You did your best to be a good wife. Don’t blame yourself. Everyone agrees you’re too good for them, you’re a real saint. You owe it to yourself to have some peace now. The kids are grown, they’re not boys any longer, they can look after themselves. If they want to be pigs then leave them to it. As for Jim, well, you’ve been a good wife to him – never answered back, never nagged, never made scenes, always had his dinner ready, always let him have sex even when you were exhausted or ill. Everyone has the right to a bit of peace. But instinct, conscience, tells her that that’s the wrong answer. It’s cowardice, to run away. The other voice says. “Yes, it is cowardice! Stay. And put up with it, the way you always have. You know they’ll come in drunk, quarrelsome, and stupid with beer and whisky. They’ll vomit in the toilet, maybe here in the dining room. They’ll shout and swear, complain about the dinner, tell filthy stories. But that’s their badness. Not yours. You’ll get your reward in Heaven, the way everyone tells you you will. It’s no good trying to change things, change people. Nothing ever changes. All you can do is see to your own salvation”.
This is even more seductive, because it has a nice Christian polish to it – but it’s equally wrong, as we’ve been seeing earlier. And the woman sees that it is, and goes on listening not for a comfortable answer that will let her off the hook of having to do something, but genuinely, sincerely asking for the right answer. Which in this particular case, with its particular background and all its own details, is to wait for them to come home and tell them what she thinks of their conduct, to tell them she recognises her share in it, by permitting it for so long, and then to say that they’re going to have to talk about it in the morning when they’re sober. For now she’s going to bed, she’s going to lock the door, and if her husband tries to break it open she’ll be standing inside with a flat iron.
Different details in the story could dictate different details in the answer, but in that story that is the answer, or the beginning of the right answer – and the woman recognises it. Her legs shake. Her mouth goes dry. But she does it. And starts on the long path to where she needs to be. And whenever she really needs help, she will get it – sometimes, not often but sometimes, in real, plain, silent words in her head. Sometimes simply by an awareness that “This is the answer, this is what I have to do”. Sometimes by a feeling of strength that seems to come to her from outside, and she could never have had on her own.
But all these different kinds of help depend on the way she asks for it, and how she is, when asking. If she asks, but really wants a particular answer, that is easy, comfortable then that is the answer she’ll get, not from good, but from evil. She has to want only the right answer, whatever it is. And be ready to accept it.
You may be saying that that woman’s problem is way out, an extreme case that has nothing to do with your problems, now or ever – although a lot of women would say it’s a long way from being extreme, and compared to their own problems is pretty tame.
But suppose it does have no bearing on your life. You still face problems, and some of them need more than your own intellect and conscience to solve them. Say you work in a bank. You want to do what’s right, and you are becoming more and more aware that in various directions the bank does what’s wrong. Its lending policy destroys a lot of people. It lends too easily, and is too tough reclaiming the debt. It lends to bad people and turns a deaf ear to good ones. What do you do? Resign, saying nothing? Resign making a point in public of why you’re resigning? Stay inside and fight for better policies? Say nothing because you know that nothing you say make any difference? Give information anonymously to a crusading journalist? To a rival bank? Give it openly, and wait to get fired so you can involve your union? Decide that the bank’s business is the bank’s business and not yours? That business morality and private, personal morality are parallel lines that don’t meet?
Some of these answers you can cross out at once. But which ones? And are there others you haven’t thought of?
Or you work in advertising. You’re not a smoker and you believe tobacco is a killer. So what do you do when you’re asked to handle a cigarette account? You need your salary. Other people depend on it as well as you. And if you walk out on this job you may not get another one – at least not as good. Or in advertising, which is all you really know about. How far can you go in standing up for what you believe in? How far should you go? Should you sacrifice the welfare of your family for a gesture that in the end won’t make any difference? Someone else will take your job, handle that account. No one will even notice – except your family as it faces hardship. What’s the answer?
Or you work in a factory. You know things are going on that damage the company. People taking tools home. Faking their time sheets. Sleeping on the night-shift. Doing really lousy work on Mondays because they have hangovers. Skimping things on Friday afternoons so they can get finished early and have a lazy half hour before the whistle blows. What do you do? Tell tales? Speak out at a union meeting? Sing dumb? Go along with what everyone does because there’s no point in doing any better? Try to do better and give a good example with the certainty that everyone on the shop floor will pick on you as a boss’s toady? Or you see someone shoplifting, slipping a couple of TV dinners into their coat pockets. What do you do? Tell the manager? Say it’s none of your business. Warn the shoplifter you’ve seen what she – he – did? And to put things back or else? Wonder if the shoplifter is really hungry and really broke, and needs the food a lot more than the store needs the money? Or is it part of a long-term racket that ought to be stopped – because shoplifting puts up the prices for the honest people? Feel you ought to do something – but it would mean being a witness – and maybe have someone decide to pay you out for it.
You can multiply examples like this a thousand, ten thousand times over. You face similar ones yourself, often. And there are always a lot of answers – some obviously wrong, some possibly good – but which one is the answer? You’ve seen a lot of cases where people have chosen what seemed like the right answer at the time, and it proved to do much more harm than good. Or failed to do any good at all, even as an example of trying to do the right thing.
For example, you realise that a neighbour is committing incest with his fourteen-year-old daughter. So you go to the police. What else could you do? And the man goes to jail, the daughter goes into an orphanage, because the courts decide the mother knew and shares in the crime, and the mother kills herself. Did you do the right thing? Was there anything else you could have done? Anyone other than the police you could have spoken to? The father, at the risk of him beating you up, and badly? The mother? The girl herself? Other neighbours? At the risk of getting sued for slander? Of having the whole family ganging up on you? Which can happen, even in such cases.
In all of these cases, and any similar ones you can think of, you need more than reason and conscience. You need to be guided.
But frankly, you don’t believe that guidance will come? Or if anything that seems like guidance does emerge, it will be from your subconscious? Who can argue with you? All that anyone could possibly say to you is “I’ve tried it, it works for me”. And you can give them a pitying smile. All they can then say to you is “try it”. And all this book can say to you is that a number of people have tried it, and it works for them. There is no reason why it shouldn’t work for you. But it is not an easy option. It is not a way of shuffling off your responsibilities for making decisions onto an inner voice, an invisible Presence. It is a very tough option, because it means constant effort, constant self- discipline, and constant control of your thoughts, your desires. It means a constant effort to be good.
END OF PART I
There are as many ways to become good, as there are people who make the effort. Everyone starts from a slightly different position, has different problems to solve, different faults to correct, so that although the goal is the same in all cases the path towards it can’t be identical.
But as soon as all those different paths are analysed, they fall into three distinct groups. One is characterised by love. One by suffering. And one by obedience. One might call these the three main Paths to Goodness.
The Path of Love seems to need no explanation. To love other people. To love the idea of goodness. To love the idea of that Presence waiting for all of us, that radiates love – is love. But as soon as you look closer, all this falls to pieces. We’ve already considered how selfish most love is, and that even at its purest, human love still tends to be lessened by a degree of self, of possessiveness. Even a love that seems totally giving can still look for a reward, for recognition, admiration, even pity. “Look how she loves him, and he doesn’t really love her at all. I do truly pity her”. And the unrequited lover basks in being unrequited, being pitied.
The plain fact is that love, real love, is a lot more difficult than it seems at first sight. There are starry-eyed souls who assure you they love everyone – they love the world – they love trees and sunsets – they love you having just met you. They probably love hamburgers. But how much is all that worth?
Real love involves a great deal of pain. Catholic mystics have written about being Victims of Love – and there is a depth of wisdom in that. Real love is not primarily about what you are capable of giving, which is nothing much, but what you are capable of receiving, and reflecting. Remember the blazing, incandescent love radiated by that Presence described by the “near-death” storytellers. Nothing anyone can do can possibly equal that, come near it, or be worth mentioning in connection with it.
But while you can’t equal it, or begin to equal it, you can accept it, and reflect it, the way that even the smallest mirror can reflect the sun. And this is what the Path of Love is about. It has nothing to do with telling strangers you love them, or telling yourself you love totally unlovable aunt Elizabeth. It hasn’t even very much to do with loving people who are lovable. It involves recognising that that Presence loves them – and loves you – and longs to be your lover. The pain comes in realising how unworthy you are to be loved – and how in the world round you that infinite, inconceivable love is rejected and scorned and trampled on – as if you were watching the most beautiful and purest woman imaginable being dragged into an alleyway and gang raped. And you were helpless to do anything about it. Worse than that, in the past you yourself had taken part in the horror of it.
What the Victim of Love has to do is try to answer that love, reflect it, and atone for that horror. He, she, has to become as pure as a mirror, so that the Presence’s love radiates from them, affects other people not by shallow assurances that “I love you”. But by the simple fact that here, embodied in a human being, surrounding them, pulsing from them is love. If you are very fortunate you may have met someone like that.
If you have you’ll have seen that they are not at all like the sweet hippies who used to stick flowers in soldiers’ rifle barrels. They are very, very strong, very disciplined and also somehow withdrawn, detached – as if they are all the time conscious that it is not their love they are radiating, but His, and they are humbly afraid that they might be given credit for something that is not theirs, and never could be. They are like messengers, who deliver a wonderful, message to you, and then stand discreetly aside while you read it.
Such people are born and not made. Like you and me they may have started off from squalor, from selfishness, from all kinds of faults and follies – but once they realise where they ought to be going they spread their wings like a dragonfly crawling out of its chrysalis. They become transformed. If you are like that, then you don’t need this book, and I would not dare to offer you advice.
The Path of Suffering is equally difficult. We all know people who suffer very serious pain, physical or mental or both. Some of them complain about it, a lot of them endure it bravely. But very few of them accept it gladly, even joyfully, as a gift, as a means of giving, a means of paying not only their debts, but other people’s as well.
This concept, of suffering as a means of payment, is so alien to modern thinking that it’s very difficult to discuss it without being accused of madness or badness. “Suffering is bad, wrong. No one ought to suffer”. Which is true. But if someone is suffering, if that suffering can’t be alleviated, then it would be a wonderful thing to make use of it, to make it a source not of misery but of goodness.
If you saw your own child in pain, and knew you could take that pain on yourself, you would. You might even do it for someone else’s child, if you knew and loved them. But would you do it for a stranger? A stranger’s child? All the children that are in pain, hungry, dying of dysentery, of famine, of disease? How could you? No one could suffer that much. And it would be pointless even to think about it. How could your suffering help theirs? There’s no connection.
But suppose there is a connection? First of all, a very simple, material one. You live in a rich country. They live in abjectly poor ones. To an extent you may not like to think about your comparative wealth, your gadgets, videos, freezer, automobile, clean shirts, air conditioning central heating, cheap coffee, all the things you take for granted – depend on their poverty. If you wanted to be brutal to yourself you could say that by insisting on American style comfort you are also insisting that those children stay hungry.
A certain type of economist will leap forward crying “Untrue, untrue! Liberal wimp! If those dago sons of bitches worked like us they’d be rich like us”. But this is false. A lot of them work a lot harder than you, and they stay poor so that you can drink the coffee, and eat the tinned fruit they grow, and wear the clothes they make in far east sweat shops at a quarter the price you could make them in Idaho or Arkansas. The Third World provides the slave labour that the Old South used to provide for the North. Cheap cotton. Cheap Minerals, Cheap all sorts of things.
But that connection is only the start of it. The First World doesn’t simply exploit the Third World as a source of cheap labour. It also uses it as a dumping ground for products it doesn’t want, and can’t sell at home, because they are harmful or downright poisonous, from baby foods that give babies diarrhoea to strong tar tobacco.
But there is also a less obvious link, although it is connected intimately with what we have just been considering. As was said earlier, our evil, our greed, our cruelty, our follies, opens gateways between the two realities, the two worlds, for evil to pour through – for evil beings to pour through. It is as if we were in a besieged city, and we opened secret gateways for the besiegers to enter and enslave and murder the inhabitants, to rape, burn, destroy, and foul, and drown our city in blood and slime.
This is going too far? Look at it. Not at your neat suburb, but at the slums – even in the USA. Look at the shantytowns around Mexico City. Rio de Janeiro. Look at the children playing beside open sewers, their eyes running with infected matter, their bellies swollen with hunger and tapeworms. Look at the forgotten places. Valleys in the mountains where the peasants starve, because they’ve been forced to grow “cash crops” instead of food. Look at Africa, where mothers carry their babies five hundred miles for the hope of finding food. And find none. And watch their babies die, while they themselves are dying. Look at Asia, Vietnam, Cambodia, China. Look at Russia, Eastern Europe – not at the secret police who have gone underground, but at the secret places that were always underground – the poisoned earth where children are born deformed and develop leukaemia. Where the mothers weep in the hospitals and no one cares.
Who is responsible? Oh yes, their governments, their stupid, inefficient systems. Their corruption. Their ignorance. Their vile local wars. Sometimes their drugs, turned into an export industry.
But who else? Who buys their drugs? Who finances their corruption and stupidity? Who lends them money for their wrong headed plans – hydroelectric dams that dispossess the peasants, skyscraper hotels that mock the starving slum dwellers – and having lent them money, squeezes them for the interest until the people die? Who advises them to grow what we want instead of what they need? Who buys the beef from the cattle barons who burn the forests? Who buys the cheap clothes the children make in slave factories in the East.
Not you, of course, in Pleasantville. Not I! Then who? People we vote for. People we tolerate. People we admire as they ride by in stretch limousines, with little flags on the wings and motorcycle outriders. Our rulers. Our hidden shapers of the future. And we share in their guilt, not because we tolerate them – what could we do against them? But because we enjoy the fruits of what they commit in our names. We enjoy the cheap abundant energy, the luxuries, the comforts, as once our ancestors enjoyed the fruits of slavery, even if they never owned a slave, wept at the story of Uncle Tom were horrified by tales of southern cruelty.
It takes sacrifice to correct such horrors. We have to make sacrifices. But again, what good would it do anyone if you drove a smaller automobile, or rode a bicycle, or refused to buy fruit grown on viciously exploited plantations, or to have an account with a bank that bleeds money from the Third World? Would anyone even notice?
But before you decide that sacrifice is useless, ask what kind of men you are up against? (Not many women are involved. Liberation hasn’t yet reached the IMF or the boardrooms of Multi-Nationals – or not to any notable extent. Or perhaps men are slightly more willing than women to submit to total evil.)
The men we are talking about are not likely to be born monsters any more than Eichmann or Himmler or even Hitler started off as monsters. The things for which they are responsible happen elsewhere. They never see them. Maybe they take care never to see them. They don’t see the swollen, dying children, the poisoned rivers, the dying forests. They don’t see the starvation, the disease. If they did they would be stricken, they would cry “Unfair! It has nothing to do with me! It’s their government! Or progress! Or growth, development! A stage on the way to prosperity!”
But they become monsters, because they become possessed by evil, as Himmler did, and Hitler, and Goebbels, and Mengele, and Ilse Koch, and all the others. Possessed not by greed, but through greed. Their greed for wealth, power, success opens them to possession, the way a young man’s greed for money can lay him open to possession by the nearest gang chieftain. “I want a motorbike. A leather jacket. A fix”. “Fine, fine. You’re a great guy, a useful one. You see that jeweler’s shop? Smash the window. Grab those rings. Bring them to me and I’ll see you get what you need”. And then, “You see that warehouse? That old watchman? You bust him on the head while we go in. Keep him quiet”. And the old watchman dies, and the greedy young man is a murderer. Where can he go now? Where can he hide from evil?
The men in grey suits and stretch limousines are no different. They want mohair suits, a Cadillac, a holiday home in Florida, an estate in the Hamptons, a younger, lovelier wife. They want politicians to fawn on them. They want power to change the world. And their greed opens them to evil.
You see that corrupt, wicked government? Lend it money! They want weapons to kill their own people, threaten their weaker neighbours? Provide them. They want to dispossess innocent savages in order to burn down their forests? Lend them more money. Finance their projects. Their dams, their highways, their corruption. The money will flow back to you ten fold, and with it power. Power to buy beauty”.
But shouldn’t I perhaps hesitate? Is all this as it ought to be?”
Oh yes, Mr. Morganfeller, Mr. 666, Mr. Tiny Anti Christ. It is exactly as it ought to be. As it has to be. Did you ever see anyone so lovely as that young dancer? She admired you, longs for you. Wouldn’t you like her to become the next Mrs. 666? Imagine her naked in your Louis Quinze bed, beside your pool in Florida, on your yacht. Those Indians in the forest, we’ll give them new blankets, Coca Cola, we’ll build a MacDonald’s right beside them. They’ll be OK”.
And if they aren’t? Well, there has to be losers in this world, or else how could there be winners? And you, you who live in Pleasantville and worry about such things? What can you do? The plain answer is nothing. As was once said, against great evils small remedies are not of small use, they are of no use at all.
But if you cannot do anything, you can indeed be something. For example, a Victim. A Victim of Suffering. To offer your pain to the Presence – your acceptance of your pain, to counteract that flood of evil the grey suited lords of money allow into our suffering world. Just as you would gladly accept your daughter’s pain if you could take it into yourself, so you could take into yourself the world’s pain – a particle of it – a Pleasantville share of it. Offer your pain, your joyous acceptance of it, for all the dying children.
No? Gross? Impossible? You can’t bear pain? You would if you could, but you can’t?
Then all that remains is obedience.
Obedience to what? To what is good. To what your reason and conscience tell you is good. And when they can take you no further, to what that interior voice that goes even beyond your conscience will tell you. Compared to Love and Suffering, Obedience seems so dull? Yes. Perhaps that’s part of its virtue, part of its value. Where Love and Suffering belong to the realm of emotions, with all that that implies and makes possible – excitement of a right kind, even ecstasies such as the mystics describe, Obedience belongs to the realm of intellect, of reason. Of using one’s intellect to help one decide what is right, to make right choices. To solve moral problems. But Obedience too can be lifted to a higher level of intensity If it is to be of value in the struggle against evil, in the way Love and the acceptance of Suffering can be, then it must be intense. Not a matter of obedience now and then, on “big” issues, but all day long, every waking minute, on all issues. Every moment can bring a choice. To say that word? This thing? Stay silent? Allow this thought to stay in one’s mind? Give way to impatience, anger, jealousy? Greed? Laziness? To ask at every moment, how can I obey more, more deeply, wisely, perfectly? It’s an effort at least as intense as that of preparing to compete in the Olympics – and while an athlete’s training and huge effort will occupy only a few years of his, her life, the efforts of a servant of obedience must last life long – and then beyond. Because what you do here is still only a preparation – a preparation for a far greater, more powerful struggle in the separate reality, that other world beyond the gate of death – where either you will choose to serve the Presence, or surrender to evil.
Obedience therefore is not your goal – it is the means of reaching your goal, which is to serve all that is good, to defeat and convert all that is evil, to rescue those weaker than yourself from the power of evil. They must help themselves. In the end they must save themselves. “No man can deliver his brother into Paradise”. But they can be helped, if they are willing to accept help. And who will do that if you don’t? Somewhere beyond that gateway, beyond the Presence, prisoners are waiting for you to free them. Sick creatures are waiting for you to help them, heal them.
Some of this you can do in our world here. All of it can begin here. But you need to remember that all that happens here is in reality a preparation. This is a school. And you have no time to waste, to play truant. The curriculum is heavy, and it needs all the time you have.
You can divide the curriculum under several headings, each of them a virtue. Patience first. Courage next. Humility. And so on through the list. But these are not lessons to be learned in sequence, as one passes from one to the other. They have to be learned together, practised together – because they knit into one another, overlap, and support one another.
But patience first. A great many people are willing to face challenge if it comes now, at once. But if you have to wait ten years? Twenty? If no ecstasies come, no mystical emotions? No rewards – no voice saying. “Well done thou good and faithful servant”? Just day after day trying to be good. Facing pressure, contempt, incomprehension, hostility – seeing other people take advantage of you, pass you in the race because they’ll happily do things you can’t do, knowing that those things are wrong. Patience with people who treat you unjustly. Who get angry with you for stupid reasons, no reason. Patience with folly. Patience when you want to shout back, answer insults with insults.
How is it done? Self-discipline. Self-control. But not weakness. True patience comes from strength. The strength to rein yourself in. Have you ever seen a beautiful horse practising menage? The delicate steps, the controlled power? In a nature film, maybe in reality, have you ever seen a great cat, a panther, a leopard, waiting to spring? In a game of chess, have you seen a great player waiting, waiting for the other player to make a mistake? Or a mother sitting by her sick child, waiting for it to wake? None of those kinds of stillness, self-control, patience mean weakness. They mean the opposite. Not to push through the crowd, because you know you are stronger than the people you would push aside. Not to shout back at a fool because you are strong enough to control your temper. Not to long impatiently for something, because you are strong enough to wait.
It’s very hard to be patient. To control the words burning on your tongue to be said. To be gentle when you long to be “tough”, to show you can be tough. To say “I’m sorry” when you long to shout “You fool! It’s your fault!” Not to make excuses when you are being blamed. To accept rebukes. To treat fools kindly. To find time for someone who needs you when there are a thousand other things you’d rather be doing. To have the patience to listen when you’re longing to tell what happened to you. What you did, what you thought.
The sister of Patience is Humility. Humility, for Heaven’s sake? Humility is un-American! The American way is to be proud, to be first to win! Nobody ever won by being humble.
Maybe not. It depends on what you want to win. But we’re not talking about professional tennis where psyching your opponent, screaming at the umpire, flinging your racket on the ground may be taken as proof that you’re a real winner. We’re talking about trying to be good. And for that humility is essential. It begins with the need to acknowledge that up to now you have not been good, not been what you ought to be. That you haven’t used your life and your mind and your talents, as you ought to have used them. That other people, even foolish people, born losers, weaklings, deserve your compassion, your concern, your help. That its better to lose than win by cheating, or brutality, or treading someone else under foot. That poverty is not a crime or a sin. That riches are not virtue. That worldly success may be worthless. That it might be much more rewarding to know Mrs. Millionaire’s Philipino servant than to spend time with Mrs. Millionaire.
It continues by putting those principles into daily practise. To hold back instead of demanding first place. To let other people tell you how wonderful they are, instead of insisting on telling them how wonderful you are. And more than that. To discover that indeed there is something wonderful about them. Maybe not what they think is wonderful, but nevertheless something worth your while to discover. Because each of us is unique. Somewhere in us, buried under the mud, is a jewel. Somewhere lost in the deafening nonsense of our daily lives is a note of music – one that could be beautiful if only we would stop all our other noise and learn to sing that note as it should be sung.
Its a marvellous thing to discover that note, that jewel, in someone else, to bring it out, see the jewel blaze for a second or two, listen to that note soar into the sky like a bird flying. But it needs humility. And patience. Self-effacement. To be a listener. Patience and humility go hand in hand in this.
And they need courage, to act as their guardian, to protect them from themselves. Of course courage comes in several kinds, and equally of course, the most obvious is physical. Some people say that it is also the least significant and the easiest to develop. But that depends on the degree of one’s cowardice. Other people say it can’t be developed. You are either born brave, or cowardly, and that’s the end of it.
I beg to disagree. Certainly some people are born without the normal sense of fear, and this can be a very dangerous quality to possess, leading its possessor into all kinds of unnecessary trouble, unless he happens to be a soldier, in which case it is likely to lead him to an early if glorious death. But for normal cowards like the rest of us, physical courage can be developed, by determination. And that is the best kind of physical courage to have – not indifference to danger, but a determination that you will be superior to the danger, you recognise it as something less than you. It may be able to kill you, but it cannot make you surrender.
This is the courage of the martyrs, of any mother bearing a child, of the true soldier. You may never have to face such, or display such courage. And only a fool would go looking for danger in order to become unafraid. But in one’s mind, one can learn to believe that defending the good is essential, and surrendering to evil is unthinkable.
Of course to tell yourself such things in the peace and quiet of your bedroom, or out in the woods, is one thing. To face actual martyrdom is another – supposing the world ever became mad enough to want to martyr a citizen of Pleasantville. And there is an oddity about that. A great number of people who decide to dedicate themselves to the service of good quite welcome the idea of surrendering their lives in the modern equivalent of a Roman arena. There would be a big crowd, secretly and silently admiring the martyr.
“Do your worst, you contemptible devils! Serve your tyrant! I know who I worship!” the about-to-be martyr would cry in a ringing voice. A woman nearby would start weeping. A low murmur of admiration would sweep across the waiting multitude. “A saint!” the whispers would grow, swell to a roar. The front rows would fall to their knees, all would kneel as the grey, damp day is suddenly lit by an unearthly shaft of light falling on the lone, heroic figure. The tyrant’s minions would dash forward in terror, a pistol shot would ring out, the martyr would slump into his tragic bonds. Afterwards the devout onlookers would find his body and tear scraps of ragged clothing from it as sacred relics.
It’s an unlikely scenario but a deeply and often treasured one. And then the same devotee of goodness and unselfishness and service to the Presence is struck with toothache, or sciatica and rushes weeping to the dentist, the doctor. “Give me painkillers! Help me! Save me!” And if he happens to believe in God as well as goodness, “Oh please God, take away this awful pain, and I’ll say an extra rosary every day for a week, I really will. I know I forgot last time, but this time I promise”.
Since we’re much more likely to face toothache than martyrdom, or even a mugger, it’s in that sort of area that physical courage has to start. To become not indifferent to pain, but superior to it. And above all, to receive it when it comes as a gift, not as a horror that should not exist.
This is so contrary to current thought that I can have no expectation you will accept it. All I can hope is that you will at least consider it, as a possible idea. A gift? Pain? Yes. Turn back to that image of your own child in pain, in agony. If you have ever had the experience of watching your child cry, in illness, after an accident – the helpless tears – and your helplessness. What sacrifice would you not make to take her pain, his pain, into your own body?
And someone comes to you and says – it can be done. Your child can be freed from her agony, if you will accept it, suffer it yourself. Think of your gratitude, your eagerness to accept that gift, that gift of exchange. Regard all pain like that. That if you accept it as a gift, someone, somewhere, will be relieved – maybe not in body, but in spirit. Some soul in agony will gain ease, water to quiet their burning thirst, food for their hunger.
But I don’t know if that can happen! It’s too far out! Further out than the neutron bomb? Than laser weapons on which your taxes are spent? Further out than computer viruses? Than a thousand miracles of physics and science you take for granted every day? Further out than galaxies a million light years away? The idea that there is a balance in that separate reality? A balance that allows good people to pay the debts of the unfortunate, the innocent victims, the weak and struggling? You give money to charity, to feed hungry mouths in Africa that are no more to you than shadows on the TV news. Consider the possibility that you can give also in another way – not out of your pocket, but out of your heart and soul.
Next to physical courage, moral courage is in a way simpler, because we can practise it – or fail at it – almost every day. At home. In the street. In the office. In the factory. We all know what moral courage is. To stand up for what is right, even if doing so makes us unpopular. To speak out against an injustice, even when everyone round us favours the injustice. To refuse to agree with something we believe to be wrong, when everyone round us urges us to agree, assumes we must agree, because “everyone” does.
At its simplest level it can be the refusal to sign a petition that “everyone” is signing. “Why won’t you sign? You in favour of these bastards or something?” Or even simpler, telling your children they are not to watch a TV programme all their friends are watching, because it’s vile. “Aw mom! Dad! All the guys watch it! Are you crazy? Where’s the harm! It’s just funny!”
If you’ve never laid down TV rules before it’s hard to start now. It takes moral courage to seem absurd in front of your own children, your own husband or wife. “For Pete’s sake, what’s got into you? They always watch that stuff! You gone all religious on us?” In the office the office jester button holes you, “wait till you hear this one – boy, you’ll break up!” And you need to say “No Please. I don’t want to hear it”. “Why not, what’s got into you, I offended you somehow? Listen everyone; Joe here doesn’t want to hear a dirty story anymore. Oh boy, we got a Saint Francis in the office. Dominus vobiscum, hocus pocus, kneel down you guys, and ask his pardon for us existing”.
It can be a lot tougher than that. A Union meeting – everyone listening to the shop steward, getting swayed towards a strike. And you believe they’re wrong, they’re just going to wreck the factory, lose their jobs. You also know that nothing you say will make any difference. What do you do Nothing? or speak up; tell them they’re wrong? At least give them the chance to think again, even if it means getting yourself sent to Coventry, persecuted by the Union militants?
It can be worse still, over-lapping the area of physical courage. You see a group of white teenagers baiting a coloured boy. It hasn’t got to violence, but it soon could. Do you tell the white kids to lay off? Or walk away? They’re big kids, fifteen, sixteen, seven or eight of them. They don’t look the kind to welcome good advice. And maybe the coloured boy asked for trouble, insulted them, or did something on one of them yesterday. A few hard words won’t hurt him. But a few stones may.
Multiply the examples by a hundred and you won’t have begun to cover the whole area of moral courage. And then, there’s the question of how to apply it? Bull headed? Tactfully? Do you go up to those teenagers and tell them to clear off or you’ll call the cops? Threaten to kick their butts? Try and jolly them out of what they’re doing? Simply go up and take the coloured boy by the arm and try to walk him safely away?
What will appear too tough an attitude and maybe make things worse? Too weak an attitude and do no good? How do you get each exercise of moral courage just right? What will you say at the Union meeting? Pour scorn on the shop steward? Blaze out at his dupes? Concentrate on the danger of losing jobs? How do you start to impose the new TV censorship regime on your children? How exactly do you tell the office jokester you don’t want to hear any more filthy stories? With puritanical zeal and condemnation of pornography? Just tell him you’re too busy right now? Try and find a way that won’t insult him? A way that might even make him think again about what he’s doing?
You have to use your reason. And your conscience. And when you reach the limits of both, listen, listen for that inner voice, that inner awareness that will guide you if you are willing to be guided – willing, that is, to be guided by good, and not your own desire – whether your own desire is to be tough, or to run away.
Physical courage and moral courage combined make a wonderful virtue, but it’s still not complete. There are still other kinds of courage, and someone who has both physical and moral courage to a high degree can be a coward in these other directions.
The first is mental. “Mental courage? What kind of nonsense is that?” Very simple. There are very brave people in ordinary circumstances that are terrified of ideas – of new ideas, strange ideas, unpopular ideas, ideas that threaten to take them into places they don’t want to go. “I just can’t think of such things!” and “That’s unthinkable!” Nothing should be unthinkable. An obvious example that still troubles lots of people is the Kennedy assassination. A lot of people reject the idea of a conspiracy behind it not because it’s really impossible, but because to accept it leads into areas that are “unthinkable”. That the Warren Commission was set up, to deceive the public. That the conspirators were never punished and may still be around. That the highly respected politician X may have been involved. Even Y! Or, most unthinkable of all, Z!
Where would it end? The CIA? The FBI? The Pentagon? The oil cartel? The Russians? It’s all so unthinkable that we refuse even to consider it. There are people who need to believe that the world is a certain way. That the government is wise and good, and cares equally for all its citizens. That the President is a fine, loving, all seeing, god-like figure who will protect them against all misfortunes of a public kind. That Senators are just and good, grey chaired eminences that hate corruption. That the electoral system is beyond reproach. There are Catholics who need to believe that the Pope is the Voice of God, that the Vatican could never be touched by scandal, that priests are holy and beyond temptation, that all nuns are modelled on the Virgin Mary, that if you go to Mass every Sunday and say the Rosary every night you will surely go to Heaven. Anything else is unthinkable.
Protestants have – some Protestants have – their own version of what is thinkable and not thinkable. No doubt Buddhists and Moslems and Zoroastrians do too. Certainly a lot of atheists do. It’s unthinkable that there can be a God. Not because it is unthinkable, meaning impossible – but because to think about it would lead into mental areas that have danger signs at their borders.
There are scientists who find it unthinkable that their branch of Science may be wrong in some respects. For a long time it was unthinkable that hypnotism “worked”. Or Telepathy. ESP is still unthinkable for conventional scientists. Too unthinkable to be examined. For a tremendous number of people, it’s unthinkable that they could be wrong about certain of their beliefs. To think it would cut away the foundations on which they’ve built their lives.
All this is mental cowardice. Nothing should be unthinkable, no idea should be regarded as so dangerous that we must never examine it. Maybe the atheists are right and there is no God. The most pious, devout Christian ought to have the courage to consider that, examine it. See where it leads. And the most committed atheist ought to be brave enough to follow the reverse direction, examine the possibility that God exists, and really examine it.
Examine what? What is there to examine? You mean the Bible?
Well, maybe even that! If the atheist is right and God is myth, reading the Bible, even the Gospels, won’t kill him, or her.
And the Protestant, who regards all Catholics as superstitious halfwits, or peasants, or deluded souls in danger of damnation who regards the Pope as next door to anti-Christ, and the teachings about Our Lady as blasphemy – would he – she – be willing to read about the apparitions at Fatima – to examine what really happened there, what many credible witnesses saw there, and experienced, and put on record?
Would the same fiercely anti-Catholic Protestant be willing to read the life story of say Saint Therese of Lisieux? See what she was really like – not the plaster saint with the plaster roses, but the real girl who admired Joan of Arc and longed to be like her?
Or the devout Catholic – is he – she – willing to read about the Reformation, about Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Erasmus, the argument over indulgences, the corruption in the Catholic Church, the reasons for the Reformation?
Is that pious Catholic willing to read about the Inquisition? About the witch trials? The Spanish auto-da-fé? The persecution of the Jews?
All these things would take mental courage. And without that kind of courage no one can be said to be truly brave.
But there is still another kind – one that is – or could be called – psychic courage. The courage to face the invisible, the things, and beings, that belong to the separate reality, the world of the Presence, and of evil spirits. There are people who would brave any physical danger, yet who would tremble and turn sick with fear if they saw a spirit. Which is why so many people call spirits “unthinkable”. Because mental courage runs forward into psychic courage, spirits have to be accepted as thinkable. At least as an hypothesis that explains things nothing else has yet explained.
If you want to follow any of the Paths to Goodness, but particularly the Path of Obedience, you have to develop psychic courage, because all that you do invites the psychic world to approach you, envelop you, for good and for ill, for help and for temptation. You are inviting the Presence and Its – His – Her – servants to come to you. Your efforts to be good are challenging evil spirits to try and destroy you. You must be ready for attacks. If you are not you are like a civilian walking across a battleground, asking to be wounded or killed.
But once you accept these facts and set out to understand them, you find that courage is scarcely needed. That evil spirits are incapable of hurting you, that they are no more than shadows. They trade on your fears; depend on them for their effects. But they will try to frighten you, tempt you. And not in obvious ways.
You may find yourself attacked by irrational anxieties, deep, destructive depressions. You were warned of this earlier and the warning bears repeating. You will have to defend yourself. And the principle defences are your reason, your conscience, and your faith, your trust in the value of goodness, that it is always superior to evil, that those who truly try to serve it are also superior and stronger than those who serve evil.
This latter fact may not be at all evident if you consider only this world, our reality. The Jews were not stronger than the Nazis. Men and women of good will were not stronger than the KGB. The Indians of the Amazon forest are not stronger than the forest burners.
But if you consider both worlds, both realities, then the balance will be restored, and goodness will receive its true strength. You might have expected the word strength there to have been reward – that goodness would receive its true reward. But goodness should not expect to be rewarded. Only used. Is a good soldier to be rewarded for being a good soldier? A good nurse or doctor rewarded for being what they ought to be? The only reward goodness should seek is to be of use, of some minimum value to the Presence, and all It stands for.
It’s tempting at this point to consider what that Presence, that goodness represent, what the terms mean in practical detail. But before that we still need to consider at least three more qualities you need before you can hope to serve goodness.
One is tolerance. Tolerance of the faults, weaknesses, and follies of other people. And not a condescending, Pharisaic tolerance, that smiles pityingly while saying. “I am not as other men are”. A real tolerance, that enjoys seeing other people do the things one forbids to one’s self, so long as they are not cruel things.
“Be very stern with one’s self. Be very forgiving with others”. The great danger in trying to be good is the temptation to feel special, superior, one of an elite, a Parachutist or Marine of virtue, a Red Beret of the spiritual life. To look down on the rest of mankind as sinners, lost ones. “Thank God I am not like them!”
But that is such an obvious danger, so obvious a fault that one would need to be a fool to fall into it. The more subtle dangers lie in the opposite direction. When does tolerance go so far that it condones vice, even encourages it?
You have a friend who drinks too much. Not an alcoholic, but the danger has to be there for anyone who drinks as much as he does. Do you smile and say nothing when you see him getting plastered? Stand him another drink? Try and tell him the danger he’s in? Warn his wife? Refuse to buy him another drink? Refuse to stay with him when he’s drinking? Try to tell the barman to stop serving him?
The right answer depends on a myriad facts, but you need to find an answer. “I’m not his keeper” or “I don’t want to be a spoilsport. I used to drink with him, and laugh when he made an ass of himself. How can I abandon him now?” You’ll need to listen to that inner voice, that inner awareness we’ve been talking about to get the exactly right answer, but you also need to use your reason and conscience. To realise that tolerance has to have a limit, beyond which it becomes an ally of vice.
We already considered the questions of listening to dirty stories and malicious gossip. Is it intolerant to refuse to listen to a fool saying foolish, unpleasant things? What harm can they do?
Obviously the gossip can do a lot of harm. So can the dirty stories, because most of them diminish men’s respect for women, for the idea of real love, for the true sacred nature of sexuality. One must not tolerate these things in the sense of listening to them. And if by some fatality one is obliged to listen, one needs to object. Equally one cannot tolerate drunkenness, in the sense of watching it with seeming approval, or indeed without showing disapproval.
You’re asking why? Talking about Prohibition? Being a sourpuss, a Carrie Nation, a Puritan?
The reason one cannot tolerate – or at least condone – drunkenness, is the harm it does. People die of it, are made ill by it. Families are destroyed by it. Communities are injured by it. Terrible crimes are committed because of it. Drunken drivers kill people. Drunken executives and workers ruin businesses. Drunken husbands murder their wives. Drunken mothers neglect their children. Drunken adolescents grow up into unworthy adults.
Or abortion, for which we are constantly being asked not only our tolerance, but also our approval. How can one approve of it, or tolerate it in the sense of not saying. “It’s wrong”? It is wrong. It is killing human beings. And very often it is killing them for frivolous, “Social” reasons.
Or Cigarettes. Tobacco kills. Maims. Is a filthy habit. Do we tolerate it? Or object? And drugs. People say marijuana does less harm than tobacco. That even heroin and cocaine are less harmful than alcohol in the context of the entire nation. Less people die of them; they destroy fewer families. If we tolerated them, we are told, legalised them, we would have less crime, fewer murders, and more police attention to things that really need police attention.
Is this true? Should we tolerate drugs?
The answer to all these questions is No. We should tolerate none of them. They are wrong. And nothing we ever do or say should allow anyone to believe that we think they are not wrong.
But how far do we go, ought we to go, in our refusal to tolerate them? Should we campaign against smoking, alcohol, drugs, abortion? Picket our neighbourhood abortion clinic? Sign petitions? Pressure our politicians to act, to pass laws against these vices?
The answer again is No. You’re not a politician or a policeman? You don’t have to face the immediate problems of arresting someone? Judging them? Aborting their baby? Banning smoking in a public place? Banning the sale of alcohol? Then for the moment leave those problems to the people who have to face them. Concentrate on your own failings, your own weaknesses. Become good. Strive to become wise.
But surely that’s weakness, not to take a stand? A cop out? One has to speak up? This book has said so, pages back?
Yes, it has said so, in cases where it’s your clear business to speak up. Your children are involved, your husband, your wife, your Union, your office. If there were a vote in your work place on “Should smoking be permitted here?” you are entitled to vote “No, it shouldn’t” for your sake and everyone else’s. If a woman you know came to you for advice about having an abortion, you’d be entitled to tell her that in your fervent view, abortion is wrong, and you hope she wouldn’t have one.
What you would not be entitled to do is set out to prevent her having it, nor to attempt to put such moral pressure on her that she’d be too distressed to make up her own mind clearly. This is because if that baby were to be born, you would not be concerned with caring for it. Of course, if you were willing to care for it, adopt it, parent it, educate it, love it, put it through college, remember it in your will, then fine, tell the pregnant woman so. But short of that, leave her to make up her own mind. Tell her your views with love and kindness, offer her what help you are willing and able to offer. And then stop. The rest is up to her.
But – ! Cry the anti-abortionists. Murder is murder. Abortion is murder. How can you condone it, allow it? Not do everything in your power to prevent it? If you saw a man killing a woman, would you simply advise him not to, and then leave him to make up his own mind as to whether to continue murdering her? Why is an unborn baby different?
The answer is yes, murder is murder, and abortion is murder – but there are degrees of murder. Euthanasia is murder. But suppose you saw a doctor – a loving, caring doctor, about to give a fatal injection to a terminally ill patient? The patient is in agony – left without that fatal injection she has days, maybe weeks of agony ahead of her, beyond the relief of painkillers. Enough drugs to kill the pain will kill her. Which is what the doctor proposes to give her. He knows it. She knows it and longs for it. You know it. What do you do?
Legally, its murder. Do you intervene, full of righteousness?
In the case of abortion, how can you make a law that works, as it ought to? That forbids the frivolous abortion and allows the ones that involve terribly handicapped foetuses, or severe danger to the mother? Should you support the Catholic inspired law that would ban all abortions, regardless of the circumstances? Or should you say, “I simply don’t have the competence or right to judge. I’ll leave it to those who are willing to take on such an awesome responsibility”?
The world is full of wrongs, full of causes clamouring to be supported, dragons to be killed. You can’t spend your life supporting them all, opposing them all, killing the dragons one after the other. But if you spend your efforts striving to be good, your influence, your aura of goodness, will achieve something, far more than marching in demonstrations and waving placards could ever do. And as you become good, or nearly so, that interior voice, the Presence, may make you aware that this particular cause does need your support, that particular wrong does need you to oppose it, that particular dragon does need you not to kill it, but to tame it, and bring it from evil to good. Who knows? You might be equally be left to do nothing, just to be, just to be that lit candle we talked about earlier.
What tolerance really means is being kind, gentle, warm-hearted; loving people who do wrong things, even when you loathe the wrong things they do. It means trying to help them instead of condemning them. It means trying to treat them the way you hope the Presence will treat you. However, while this is how you need to treat other people, you will need to treat yourself in an exactly opposite way – with the greatest possible severity. Not cruelty, not in any way to injure your health, but with an absolute restraint on all your appetites, so that you are your body’s master, and in no way is your body your master.
This applies first of all to the simplest form of self-restraint – to what you eat and drink. At which you may exclaim, restraint? In food? Look at all those fat bishops, cardinals, and Popes! Aren’t they supposed to have been good men? Holy men? Maybe. But as the pagan said, show me a thin bishop and I’ll become a Christian.
It’s not a question of starving ourselves, or going without what we need. It is a matter of not eating or drinking more than we need. First of all, if you don’t need it, why take it? For pleasure, of course. But what a trivial, foolish pleasure, that weighs you down with excess fat, spreads a man’s stomach over his belt as if he was pregnant, adds great slabs of fat to a woman’s behind until she looks like a hippopotamus.
And it’s a pleasure that becomes a master, until the victim lives only to eat and drink, becomes a walking stomach. There is also another important aspect to what you eat and drink. By now so many people are diet conscious, and aware of the dangers of cholesterol, saturated fats, excess calories and a balance between different foods that no sensible person needs to be told about them. But you can go beyond the effect of food on your body to its effect on your mind. Much less is written about this, but the effect exists. You become what you eat not only physically but mentally. And this is one of the strongest arguments for becoming a vegetarian.
When animals are killed they are in a state of fear – and this holds true for every creature from the calf slaughtered in stock yards in a stench of blood, and a bedlam of cries of terror, to a deer shot by a hunter to become venison, to the chicken snatched out of its battery cage at forty days old to be “Processed”. It even applies to fish.
And not only are creatures killed in a state of fear to become your dinner. They live for the most part in a state of misery. A famous French chef in England was asked why he imported ducks for his restaurant menu from France, instead of buying the much cheaper local ducks raised by battery methods. “The ones I import” he said, “live relatively natural lives in a farm yard and on a pond. They are happy ducks. They live happy lives. Their flesh tastes of that happiness”.
Even so, they didn’t die happily, eager to provide “Canard a l’orange” for English diners. And when animals are frightened, just as when you are frightened, chemicals are released into their bodies that affect the flesh. When you eat that flesh you eat that terror, consume those chemicals. It affects you. Far fetched? No more far fetched than saying that owning and exploiting slaves brutalised the slave owners.
And just as delicate southern ladies didn’t go out into the cotton fields to see their husband’s slaves whipped, and just as you don’t go into the sweat shops of India to see tiny children make the carpet cousin Blanche brought back from her wonderful world tour – tiny children beaten and starved to get the most out of them before they go blind – in the same spirit of not seeing what we don’t want to see, you don’t go into the slaughter house to see your hamburger, or your fillet steak lowing and bleating in terror before they are slaughtered.
If you had to kill your own meat, would you? Man is a hunter you say. The hunter with his gun is a real guy. Really? If you said the hunter with his Stone Age spear facing a sabre toothed tiger or even a buffalo was a real guy I’d be tempted to agree. But the beer belly draped in designer hunting gear sporting an expensive, high-powered rifle, going out to shoot deer with a few six packs in his station wagon, no.
Eating anything, even vegetables, involves killing, bringing some form of life to an end. All we can do is minimise the amount of death we cause. And as well as that moral aspect, there is a purely mental one. Eating meat, drinking alcohol, dulls certain faculties in the brain – and it is exactly those faculties you want to develop, when you set out to be guided by the Presence, and that inner voice. This is why in most religions, and in most Christian religious orders, diet has been believed to be important. To give up eating meat, to eat and drink sparingly, has universally been regarded as a preparation for spiritual awareness, and a necessary one.
There is also the matter of self-discipline. If you can’t control your stomach, what aspects of your life can you control? And there is self-sacrifice. Chocolate, beer, coffee, liqueurs, are not sinful – equally they aren’t necessary. And to give up these pleasures as a sacrifice is good. In order to educate your children you’ll gladly give up lots of pleasant things – foreign travel, expensive clothes, a better automobile, a summer cottage. In order to give to charity you’ll gladly give up an occasional self-indulgence – a visit to the theatre, dinner out, a new watch that you don’t need but would like. You make those sacrifices with a glad heart. Then make a sacrifice of foods and drinks you don’t need for another kind of charity.
But Heaven’s above, coffee? I live on coffee! I couldn’t function without it!
Really if that’s the case you do truly need to give it up.
But what good would it do? Would it put a mouthful of extra food in any hungry child’s mouth if I never touched another cup? No. It wouldn’t, unless you gave the small amount of money you saved to charity. But there are other kinds of charity as we’ve already discussed. There is the giving of your sacrifices, your efforts, to that Presence, to use as He, She, It, thinks best. You don’t have to see the results. When you give ten dollars to a charity, you don’t see who gets the benefit. You just hope someone does. When you make a sacrifice, offer it for good, – offer it to the Presence, you can be certain someone benefits – someone in deep spiritual need who receives help because of you.
But restraint goes a long way beyond coffee and becoming a vegetarian, beyond giving up alcohol, and tobacco. It means restraint in every aspect of your life. You’ve long ago agreed to restrain your temper, your impatience, bad language – then there’s sloth, idleness: sitting slumped in front of the TV screens, lying lazily in bed on Sunday –
Oh please! Not that – Hell, I work all week like a slave! Sunday is my one time – the papers, breakfast in bed – a whole day doing nothing – I need that.
Maybe. Like you need coffee, and three martinis before dinner, and a six-pack while you watch football on TV, and two-inch steaks, and Hershey bars between meals, and an automobile that uses more energy than five Indian families. The way you need twenty-five shirts and six pure wool suits in your wardrobe, and camping gear, and fishing gear, and sports gear, and holiday gear, and designer luggage, and Gucci shoes, and twelve handbags, and scarves from Paris, and electric can openers, and electric tooth brushes, and cupboards full of junk you can’t even remember buying, and plastic junk toys for the kids that they played with once and dumped in the basement.
How many of the things in your life are necessary, and how much is waste?
Oh! Come on! Waste is what makes America America! We need waste! Industry needs it – commerce needs it – everyone needs it. You stop wasting things, people stop making them, stop getting employed, stop eating. Waste is good!
Well, no, it’s not. While people are employed making junk for you to throw away, who is employed doing the things that really need doing? Building decent houses for poor people? Filling in potholes in the streets? Remaking the slums into places to live in instead of garbage dumps to exist in? How many people could be fed on the food one rich American family wastes in a year? How many people could be clothed with all the clothes you have but don’t need? How many children in the Third World could be saved by the clean water you use in your swimming pool, and drain away next week? How many Third World hospitals could do with the energy Mrs. Millionaire wastes on lighting her manicured gardens? Do we need to go on?
America, England, Western Europe, even Eastern Europe and Russia, are becoming huge garbage dumps; layer after layer of expensively produced waste that is slowly poisoning the planet. The seas are filthy with our waste products, from spilled oil to plastic bags. And our politicians talk about the necessity of more “growth”, “development”, and “progress”. We don’t need more. We need less. Less of everything. Above all, less waste.
Well, there’s nothing much you can do about that unless you happen to be head of a factory, and even then all you could really do would be resign. But you can at least do something in your own life. Have what you need. What your family needs. And then stop.
During the oil crisis of a few years back, when there were long queues at gasoline stations and America really feared it was in trouble, a journalist started asking drivers where they were going and why. He stopped one driver out on the highway, and asked his questions.
“Where am I going? Just going. What for? Because I want to. How far? I don’t know. Maybe a couple of hundred miles. Don’t I know there’s a petrol crisis? Yeah, I guess so. Then why am I doing this? Because its my goddam right!”
It wasn’t. It isn’t. And until we get rid of that conviction that it’s our God given right to waste the planet’s riches, the planet is going to be in deeper and deeper trouble. And so are we. So, restraint, on top of all the other new resolutions.
The last of the major qualities you need for the Path of Obedience is really the product of all the others when they are successfully developed. Its one we’ve already mentioned. Moral authority.
It’s easiest to begin by saying what it is not. It is not self-righteousness. It is not laying down the moral law to other people. It is not a belief that you are special, or chosen by God to tell the world what it ought to do. It is not a conviction that you are good and saved from sin. Indeed it is not a conviction of anything at all about yourself. In an odd way, the mere belief that you have it is an indication that you have failed to acquire it. It’s rather like being lovable. The people, who are surest they are lovable, are the ones least likely to be so.
Yet just as you need to become lovable if you are to have a happy marriage, a loving family life, so you need to acquire moral authority if you are really to serve goodness.
No schoolteacher can hope to be successful unless he or she has it, to exercise in class. Without it, the teacher loses control, the kids play her up, and no one learns anything. How does she acquire it? Use it? She doesn’t know. “I just tell the children to do something and they do it”. While the teacher next door battles with ructions, catcalls, paper darts, inattention, and total failure. What’s wrong with him? “The kids just don’t listen to me. I guess I’m in the wrong career”.
She is. He is.
Then there’s the hospital nurse. One can control a ward full of difficult patients. She doesn’t raise her voice, bully anyone. They just know she knows what has to be done, and they co-operate. There are two army sergeants training recruits. One yells, bullies, hands out punishments, and still nothing goes right. The other sergeant never needs to yell, never needs to punish, and he has a first class platoon.
Leadership? Knowing one’s job? A feeling for people? Tact? Character? They all mean the same thing – moral authority.
Me? The teacher, the nurse, the sergeant say in amazement. I have moral authority? You must be kidding. I just do what’s needed and people help. Praise them, not me.
This is the way it has to work for you. How? It’s like riding a bicycle. Think about it too deeply and you’ll fall off. You just do it, and it works. But it’s the product of a lot of effort, a lot of falls, a lot of courage, a lot of trust.
So it is with moral authority. It springs from all your other efforts. Until suddenly, to your amazement, someone will tell you you have it. And you will realise that you do, and be stricken with a kind of guilty shame, that someone as unworthy as you are should be so highly regarded. When that happens, realise that the authority is not yours. It belongs to the Presence, who has clothed you in it, not because you deserve it, but because you represent Him, just as an Ambassador represents his country. He is nothing, only a weak and sinful man. But his country is great, and as its representative he demands respect.
At this stage you may be complaining that what we are talking about is not just becoming good, making resolutions to amend your life, be unselfish, help other people – but instead we’re talking about religion, Christianity without using Christian terminology. The Presence is surely a euphemism for Christ? We’re mentioning God. We’ve been talking endlessly about good and evil, about spirits, spirituality. This is all a confidence trick. You’ll be asking us to get baptised next, go to church again –
No. And maybe yes. And still no. Leaving aside other religions and thinking of Christianity, because it’s still the dominant religious tradition of where we live, what is it? Not in books of theology and pious sermons, but in actual daily experience? What do you see when you look at it? Hear when you listen to it?
You hear money. The rustle of greenbacks. The clink of coins. Fund-raising. Not just for the TV evangelists who want to build a new whatever, but the nice local preacher who wants a new church roof.
You see the results of money. Big buildings. Power plays. Church politics.
What you don’t see, don’t hear, is a man on a hillside preaching the Beatitudes, blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the humble. Maybe if you went to South America, the Philippines, you’d see men doing that. But not in Pleasantville, where the pastor and the priest drive Chryslers, and wear Brooks Brothers suits, and love to see Mrs. Millionaire in their congregations.
The priest and the pastor are nice men, scrubbed, earnest good living – but they are not Christ-living. How could they be? Pleasantville wouldn’t stand for it if they tried it on.
”We don’t want a fanatic, a religious maniac,” the Church elders, would tell the bishop. “We want an organiser, a fundraiser someone who won’t embarrass us with sermons about un-Pleasantville things like poverty and sin”.
The bishops will agree wholeheartedly and suggest to Father Maniac and Pastor Fanatic that they are really in the wrong profession. Maybe they need psychiatric help.
While if you were to go to Father MacPleasant, or to Pastor Polite, and tell them about the Presence, about the inner voice you think you hear, about self-sacrifice and self- discipline, about humility and psychic courage, about the need to develop moral authority, about the need for self restraint, about the existence of that separate reality, about good and evil spirits, they would be absolutely sure you needed psychiatric help.
They would be very pleasant, very polite, and intensely anxious until they got you off the premises. “Whew” they would whisper as you walked down the drive past the parked and polished
Chrysler, “what a nut case! Thank God we don’t have many of them in our community”.
No. This book is not a disguised plea for you to join or rejoin a Christian Church, or be baptised or “saved” or “born again”. I don’t believe myself that any of the Churches have more than a nominal connection with the Gospels, or anything Christ represents. Fr. MacPleasant and Pastor Polite are
performing a social function, not a spiritual one.
“Oh, wait!” both of them say. “You are absolutely wrong about that, although we really don’t like contradicting anyone or disagreeing with anyone, or correcting anyone about anything, least of all religion! But really! Please! You’re totally out of date. Maybe a hundred years ago, fifty, even thirty
years back, there might have been a shade of truth in your accusation. But not today! We are truly spiritual today. Of course there has to be money, alas. That’s simply the way the world is. You can’t function without it. We’re sure Jesus didn’t. Didn’t Judas keep the purse for Him? Oh dear, Judas. Yes, of course. But that was just an accident that it happened to be Judas, it must have been.
But aside from the money – well, yes, a Chrysler – but we have to get round our parishes. We couldn’t use bicycles, ha ha – or walk! And the bus system – we’d never get anywhere. As for Mrs. Millionaire, have you any idea how good she is? The charities she supports? Why at the last Gala Charity Ball for Zulu orphans she gave all the flowers – and from her own gardens. I tell you frankly that that woman is a saint. I simply love visiting with her –
But that’s enough about Pleasantville. Of course we’re really fortunate, although you’d be surprised at some of the things that go on even here wouldn’t he Father? Oh yes, I’m sure he would, Pastor. Quite dreadful things sometimes. But not like South America of course. Or Africa. Priests and pastors there are really in the firing line. Facing social evil – not just individual sinners – but sinful societies. The sort of societies, government systems, that have to be changed before you can preach the Gospels. It’s no good preaching the Christian virtues to hungry people, people suffering injustices, oppression, grasping landlords. The Churches have to help to change society, change the system, bring about social justice. That’s what the Churches are about these days. Nuclear disarmament, giving land to the peasants, democracy, correcting the evils of Capitalism. Oh, there’s so much to do in religion nowadays, there aren’t enough hours in the day. There’s our spirituality, not arguing about theology, or points of doctrine. Ecumenism. Bringing people together. Jews. Protestants. Roman Catholics. Buddhists. Agnostics. Greek Orthodox. Coptic Christians. Atheists. Confucianists. Oh, it’s so exciting. Getting to the young people, reaching out to them, to everyone.
“Father MacPleasant now, he holds the most wonderful ecumenical services. The young people sing and dance. He hands out buns and frankfurters instead of bread and wine – everyone loves it. Of course his bishop is a bit doubtful, but then, he’s an old man, he doesn’t really understand ecumenism. Religion to-day is about getting rid of things that stand in the way of union. Getting rid of old-fashioned doctrines that are out of date. The Virgin Birth. The Resurrection. The Real Presence. A personal God. Young people don’t want to hear about things like that. They want a living, vibrant faith they can touch and see”.
“You mean like pop stars? Rock concerts?” “Yes, yes! You’re absolutely right. Music is the new world language. Madonna. Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones. That’s the way to reach the young. They can relate. Russian and American youngsters, German, French, English, Irish, Jewish – not with dry-as-dust sermons – old fashioned, dreadful ideas about sin and self-sacrifice – we have to tell young people how good they are”.
“Even if they’re not?”
“Oh, but they are. You ought to see the young people at our services. The way they play their guitars. They really enjoy religion”.
“I expect they do. But is it what Jesus meant by religion? He got crucified”. “Well, look to tell you the absolute truth, to be perfectly frank with you, I’ve never been quite happy with that story. Did Jesus really exist? And if he did, and if he was executed, is that really the sort of thing we want to emphasise in these days? I mean, our Jewish friends are very unhappy about it. And frankly the Moslems and Buddhists are not interested. While the agnostics need something more uplifting before we can hope to draw them in. And….”
No. That is not the kind of Church I’d ever expect anyone sensible to want to join. Yet – there is a kind of Church that one needs to consider. It has no formal rules, no organisation, no Pope, no priests or pastors, no buildings no Chryslers, no fund raisers. Mrs. Millionaire wouldn’t dream of going near it if she ever heard of it. It lacks even a name. Its open to anyone, even to atheists. It never turns anyone away, because the simple fact of wanting to join it makes you a member.
But of course, nothing is ever quite as easy as it seems, wanting to join it involves wanting all that goes with joining it – beginning with self-sacrifice. What one has to desire in order to desire to join it is to desire to serve goodness with all one’s heart and all one’s soul and all one’s strength all the remaining days – and nights – of one’s life. And beyond one’s present life into whatever comes after.
What this nameless religion demands of its followers is that they strive to become not simply good, but holy. That they strive to become what Jewish tradition called “Just men (or women)” of the kind whose existence would have protected Sodom from God’s just anger. The kind of men and women that Mary has called “Apostles of the Last Days”. The kind of people the Hopi Indians call the “Balancers of the World”. Men and women whose holiness and sacrifice make atonement for the world’s sins.
Father MacPleasant and Pastor Polite interrupt again to say that even if one is not too keen on talking about the Crucifixion, or believing in the Resurrection, Christ did die for our sins, and pay for all of us forever, so that we all have the right to enter Heaven, like free tickets into Disney World.
St. Paul disagreed, and he was surely in a better position to know? He said that his own and other people’s sacrifices went towards making good whatever was lacking in Christ’s sacrifice. Of course, if you believe in the Resurrection, if you believe that in some extraordinary way Christ was God as well as being a man, then His sacrifice would have been as infinite as He was, and capable of paying everyone’s debts, and getting everyone forgiven. But that is not what He said He was doing. He said He was making it possible for us to enter Heaven, if we did certain things, such as taking up our own crosses, and following Him. And the meaning of “taking up your cross” is that you expect to be crucified. In part to atone for your own sins – like the two thieves, and in part to atone for the world’s sins, like Jesus.
All the real saints that have ever existed have belonged to this “Inner Church”, whether they thought in those terms or not. Every holy man, holy woman – Catholic saints who are in the calendar, like St. Therese of Lisieux, and heretics who are not, like John Huss – unknown saints whom no one has ever heard of because they lived in an Indian Village and died there unknown. Women like Simone Weil, and children like Anne Frank. Women and men who never thought that they were holy, or even good, or “religious”, who simply spent their lives serving other people. People who died nameless in the Holocaust to save someone else. And her – and him – and –
A great many people have belonged to this nameless Church of true goodness. But far less than ought to have belonged to it. Cardinals and Popes and High Priests have not only failed to join it, they have persecuted those who did. Theologians have ignored it. Trendy modern priests have scorned it. The comfortable inhabitants of Pleasantville, and Nice town, and Luxury City, and Ambition County have shuddered or got angry when they heard any rumour of it.
In the highly unlikely event of you asking me, should you really, ought you really, to join a Church, I should say yes, you should, you ought to join that Church. And if you were to ask me, as you are well entitled to, why haven’t I joined it I could only answer that I’m not nearly good enough. You don’t have to be an astronaut to write about the surface of the moon, or be a Nobel Prize Winner to appreciate Einstein. You don’t have to be another Yehudi Menuhin to appreciate music and tell the real music from the commercial noise. So please. Listen to what I say, judge it, accept it or reject it, not as someone condescending to you from a height to tell you how to climb up to his level, but as someone kneeling on the floor, very dirty and dusty and shaky on his legs, who is pointing to a ladder. He may never climb it. Knowing himself he’s sure he never will. The very thought of it makes him dizzy. But you can climb it. Why not see where it leads? It has to lead somewhere better than this.
Where will it lead you, that ladder? To a tough life, certainly – just men and women, apostles of the Last Days, balancers of the world can’t expect, don’t expect easy times.
But what is this about Last Days? You mean like the man trudging up and down Broadway with a sign saying “Repent! The end is Nigh”? Well no. And again yes. You’d have to be very optimistic, or else simple-minded not to recognise that the end of something is nigh. The world may not be about to end in a nuclear holocaust next Thursday at 3 p.m. But even governments have begun to realise that there are other ways of destroying the planet, and we’re employing all of them. How much more “progress” can the planet stand, and still keep us alive? What still protects mankind from annihilation is so fragile, so thin, fraying away so fast, that its like the last strand of a climber’s rope as it is about to break.
Even now our rulers and most of our pundits are afraid to tell us how thin that last strand is. “We need more information before we take decisions that could cost industry billions”. So industry is allowed to go on sawing away at the rope, and more fibres are parting, while you and I hang on to the end, twisting in the wind.
Meanwhile the Third World wants to catch up on progress. Why not? We had ours at their expense. Now they want theirs at our expense. And right or wrong, who can stop them? How? Stop them burning their forests, destroying their – and our – dwindling resources, of trees and nature. How can we stop them burning their coal, which is almost the only energy source they have? How can we stop them demanding heavy industry and more automobiles? And more weapons? We try to stop them getting nuclear weapons, and chemical weapons, and the means of waging germ warfare. But suppose we fail? Suppose an Arab dictator gets a nuclear arsenal at last, and drops it on Israel. And Israel retaliates. And then – and then –
Suppose the Arab fundamentalists who are climbing to power from North Africa to Central Asia and even into China – suppose they declare a Holy War on the blasphemous infidel West, on the Great Satan of the United States? Decide that the West that has failed to punish Salman Rushdie the blasphemer has shared in his blasphemy and deserves to die along with him?
If I were still young I wouldn’t expect to grow old without seeing everything I was brought up to consider “normal life” changing out of recognition. Even in my own lifetime I’ve seen changes my grandparents would have considered unthinkable, impossible, and I’m not talking about computers or penicillin or the luxuries that make Pleasantville the charming place it is to live in. I’m thinking of the ozone layer, and world pollution – of the disappearance of the kind of countryside they took for granted and assumed to be permanent. I’m thinking of cities choked with traffic where people die of smog. (And my grandparents thought they had a right to complain about the traffic!).
I’m thinking of the population explosion, and inflation. Of Chernobyl. Of children dying of leukaemia around nuclear power stations, and government PR men telling their parents there’s no connection. Of fifteen million children every year dying of hunger, malnutrition, polluted drinking water, dysentery, measles, vitamin deficiencies, simple filth. But that was last year. This year there’ll be more. While in the expensive restaurants the doggy bags are bursting with steak for Fido, and the garbage bins at the back feed the alley cats and the winos.
Oh yes, please let Fido be fed, and the alley cats, and the winos. But why not the children too? Except that the Food Mountains are so hard to move. So expensive to shift. And of course not really suitable for African children, South American children – they wouldn’t like wheat, or olive oil, or butter, or canned tomatoes or fruit. Of course, in an emergency, a real famine, we’ll do our best. We have tender hearts. It only needs pictures on the TV news, mothers with big eyes, children with bigger ones, to wring our consciences. It lasts for days.
Unfortunately, hunger lasts even longer.
How long has all this to go on? Nature dying round us. The trees dying. Not just the ones the loggers tear out of the rain forests to make hardwood chopsticks for Japanese diners – how many thousand million chopsticks every year? Quite a lot – and the trees that turn into lovely furniture for us – but the trees that get destroyed to get out one hard wood giant. Is it five acres of lesser trees that have to be destroyed to let us get out one big one? And the trees that are drowned to allow the World Bank and the lending banks to finance a dam. And the trees we kill with acid rain. And the trees we pulp in order to make fat newspapers to advertise things that are going to make conditions even worse.
How long can this go on? How long ought we to want it to go on? Like watching someone slowly, very slowly, very painfully dying. The gasps for breath. The increasing agony – the fever sweats, and muscle cramps, the delirium – until you find yourself longing for it to end.
But our world isn’t going to end cleanly and finally like a single human death. As things look now, it’s going to be a long, gradual slide into deeper and deeper horrors. What will the climate changes do to our food supplies? The Professors and Senators Micawber say that something will turn up. They don’t know what, but they are sure it will. We’ll be sunbathing in Alaska and growing fruit in Greenland. Or else all the predictions are wrong and nothing nasty is going to happen after all. The one thing they are sure of is that Pleasantville is going to be all right. Vote for me, and I’ll see it’s all right. Fund my new research programme and I guarantee you won’t feel a thing. I don’t believe them.
I think that you who are going to have to live through the next thirty, forty years, are going to feel a lot of things, few of them pleasant. And that the Inner Church, the nameless, almost “secret” Church we’ve been talking about is going to play a vital role in all that will happen. Are you serious? A bunch of fanatics, weirdos – they don’t even have any funds for Pete’s sake! They don’t have any advertising budget, or any political clout – they’re a handful of nothings –
Well yes, they are – you are. No one will ever listen to you. You’re not going to mend the hole in the ozone layer, or do away with pollution, or solve the over-population problem. You’ll never be able to do anything much. We agreed on that a good few chapters ago. All you can manage is to be. Be good. Be an influence.
An influence? Them? I’m breaking up; I’ve got sore ribs laughing. That kid with the dreamy expression? That woman who had such a hard time giving up liquor? That stupid looking guy eating vegetables? An influence? They couldn’t influence a dog not to poop on the pavement.
Maybe not. But do you remember the fantasies described in the very first paragraph of this book? In which some very ordinary boy, some young girl, some everyman or everywoman finds himself, herself, playing a vital role in mysterious, wonderful, terrifying happenings, on which tremendous, awe inspiring issues depend? The fate of a world hangs in the balance. And the question was put to you, suppose it is not a fantasy? Suppose in some extraordinary way it turns out to be real, more real than the ordinary “real” life that surrounds you everyday?
Can you imagine how that fantasy might develop? With you at the centre of it? Everyman? Everywoman? In a dull, humdrum life? And a whisper coming to you – where from? How? Who is it whispering to you? “Come. You are needed”.
“Me? Needed? For what? Who are you? What do you want of me?
“Drawing you through that gap in the curtain that John Buchan described long ago, that “crack between the worlds” that Don Juan tried to get Carlos Castaneda to see – “You have to look sideways, catch it before it vanishes again. Look for it out of the corner of your eyes”.
And when you’ve looked? If you’ve seen? Am I suggesting that you slip through the gap into the other reality? No. Not in any ordinary sense. But suppose that just as we are considering the existence of two realities, two worlds, not “one here, one there”, but interpenetrating one another, co-existing in the same space, so also – there can be two realities in you – one constructed for this world, one for the other.
You remember the near death experiences? That universal factor in each story of the teller “floating” out of his, her body? Finding that in their new form of existence they could see and hear living people, but not make themselves seen or heard or felt? How their hands passed through some living person’s arm or body when they tried to touch them, to attract their attention? How they found they could pass through walls, float above ground, move faster and faster – until they found themselves drawn irresistibly into the “tunnel” and towards the Presence?
What was – what is – that other form of existence? Spirit? Another Self? The Real Self? And does it only come into existence as death approaches, or is it always within us? If it is, what is its function, what does it do while we are unaware of it? Suppose it is in some way liberated when we are asleep? And that at least some of our dreams are waking memories of what that Other Self experienced while we were asleep?
But our dreams are so useless, so absurd, disjointed. If that is all our Real Self can do, it can’t have much value? Agreed – up to a point. But suppose you have an inborn musical talent – and all you use it for is to whistle or strum a few notes on a guitar. No one would say your inborn talent had any great value. But now suppose that you develop it. Learn to play the piano, appreciate music. Your talent’s value increases with the effort you put into it.
Suppose it’s the same with this Real Self you may have – your spirit, your other reality. Suppose its abilities need to be developed? How? By the disciplines we’ve been discussing all through this book. You’re familiar with the idea of your subconscious. You can accept that in a true sense you have a conscious self, and somewhere “below” it, buried under it, hiding or lurking behind it, a subconscious self, full of unknown bits “and pieces that may surface alarmingly at moments of mental crisis. Old fears, old traumas, childhood irrationalities. Unknown territory full of dragons, that is best left unexplored.
But now suppose that what your subconscious really is, is that other self of yours. It’s “unknown” and frightening because you’ve never explored it, never trained it, never developed it. Its like a junk room, a basement in an old house, full of discarded, forgotten furniture, old broken toys, spider’s webs, damp and musty and scary. But go down there determined to clear it out, paint the walls, cure the damp, furnish it – and it becomes a room to value, maybe the room in your house you’ll love best and use most.
It’s the same with your “other self”, your “spirit”. What you are doing when you discipline your mind and body, train it in “mysticism”, is to bring your subconscious into play, into harmony with your conscious mind. And here I can only offer you the experiences of people who have done these things, to assure you will discover extraordinary results. For one example, dreams that have meaning and value. Not all your dreams. Maybe not many. But here and there dreams that show you that separate reality. That give you information that explains the necessity of goodness, reveals the nature of the struggle with evil your part in it.
The value is not only in dreams. That other self of yours, no longer untrained and idle and neglected and feared, but controlled and “educated”, strengthens your conscious self and in the best possible meaning of the term, governs it?
The nearest analogy I can offer of the relationship of the two selves, or of the “self” and the “spirit” in you, is the relationship between you and your stomach, using “stomach” as a symbol of all the physical appetites and desires. There are some men and women who are all “stomach”. They live to eat and drink and have sex. To be physically “comfortable” To indulge every physical desire. There is really nothing else in their lives. They work to obtain money for their appetites. They cannot conceive of any other kind of life. They are as was suggested earlier, “walking stomachs”. Human tapeworms.
Obviously you’re not like that. But in the past you have to some extent, been more governed by your physical appetites than by your mind. (If you haven’t, ever, then you’re extraordinary, and you certainly don’t need this book.) And if you have found your stomach controlling your mind, you’ve set out to reverse the situation and make your mind control your stomach.
What we’ve been discussing takes that process a stage further, so that the “inner”, real mind controls the outer, worldly mind. The worldly mind is concerned with worldly things; work, play, house, family; it has to be, otherwise, you’d be in trouble. But how dominant, how all pervading ought those worldly interests to be? At what point should they give way to higher, spiritual, “mystical”, otherworld interests? What we’ve been saying is “Pretty soon. At the point where your worldly interests are taken care of to a modestly sufficient extent”.
That point will vary for each of us. But it ought to exist for each of us. And we ought to realise that the otherworldly interests are far more important than the worldly ones – just as being good is overwhelmingly more important than being rich.
Now it is that control over your inner mind, your real self, that we have really been talking about all along. It is only when that inner self is trained and developed, and able to govern your appetites – whether those appetites are simply for food, or complexly for “success” – that you can hope to be of service to goodness, to the Presence. And that service not only can be, but will be, in both worlds. You won’t need to look for the gap in the curtain, Castaneda’s “crack between the worlds”, the curtain will gradually cease to exist for you. And you will discover that in reality the two worlds are one – and have only seemed like two because you closed your eyes to one of them.
As you know, even in physical ways our senses only take in a fraction of the information available. We see what we need to see, hear what we need to hear, smell and taste what we need to smell and taste for self preservation. There’s a kind of governor in our minds that excludes non-essential information. Otherwise we’d be overwhelmed with data that has no practical value for our daily lives. You don’t need to know that there are twenty-six sparrows in that tree. That the clouds overhead are cumulo-nimbus. That forty three percent of the automobiles in this street are foreign made. That you’ve just passed eleven women and fourteen men and a delivery courier. You don’t need to remember all the street advertisements, or even notice them, they’re background, non-essential.
The philosopher Gurdjieff made use of this fact to prove to his students that they were only one tenth alive most of the time. ”Just for a few minutes” he persuaded them, “look. Become aware. Of everything”. The results were and are astounding if you try it. You realise that most of your supposedly waking life is totally unconscious. Suddenly, for those three or four minutes you are alive, in a way you’ve never experienced before.
(But please don’t get the idea that Gurdjieff was a good man and his philosophy a key to goodness. he wasn’t, and it isn’t.)
Equally Aldous Huxley, using mescaline, discovered the depths of reality we normally never see, and he described it in his book The Doors of Perception. (But again, please, don’t think that mescaline is the key to reality, or to anything else except a hospital bed. It isn’t.)
What these two different approaches do, however, is to underline the fact that what we regard as “reality”, is only a fraction of it. The “other world”, the “separate reality”, is here, with us, all round us. We simply don’t see it. We exclude it from our waking minds and try to exclude it from our sleeping ones. Only very primitive peoples, and according to some beliefs, dogs and cats and other animals can still see fragments of that other reality – your dog suddenly stares at something – and as far as you can see there’s nothing to stare at. Your cat arches her back, and then dives under the couch – for no sane reason you can detect. Why? What have they seen? Sensed?
When a bushman hunter in the Kalahari tells his white employer, “Baas, there are eland four hours to the north of here” how does he know? Scent? Tracks in the sand? Droppings? Or something else, some other sense we civilised peoples lost long ago? If you were able to recover that sense, what would it show you, tell you?
But be careful. If your motive in recovering it was simply curiosity – or worse still a desire for power – you would one day regret it more than anything else in your entire life. What we must always remember is that our sole purpose in gaining control of all our faculties, of teaching our physical selves, our “outer”, worldly minds to obey our real selves, our inner minds, is to serve goodness, to serve that Presence. Any other motive is fatal.
But suppose our motive is good. Suppose, miraculously, we were to succeed, actually to become of use to the Presence? Were to become a “Just man”, a “Just woman”, a “balancer of the world”, an apostle of the Last Days; suppose we learned to resist the attacks of evil, became “lit candles”, developed moral authority, influenced the people round us, what then? Would our world be really saved from its long slide into ruin? Maybe not. Almost surely not. But perhaps – perhaps something can be saved. And with it, something too in that other, separate, mystical reality. So that all can be begun again, better, with more hope for our great, great, grand children.
That hope for our descendants depends just as much – indeed much more – on the other world than on this one. What we see here, all the horrors, the follies, the evils, are really results – results of what has happened in that other world, that we have allowed to happen, encouraged to happen.
When you see an invalid with a swollen inflamed liver, the swollen liver is not really the cause of his illness; it’s the result of it. And finally, it’s the result of decisions the man took years ago, to drink too much. The cause of the illness is ultimately mental, not physical.
And the cause of our world’s ills lies in the other world. Because in reality that is where our other selves exist, where our spirits live. If they are untrained, undisciplined, uneducated, weak, they are easily dominated by evil. Evil uses them to reach us, tempt us, control us, because we have no defences against it. Our inner minds, spirits, other selves, whatever you choose to call them, are our defences, and we have never exercised them.
Only when we train them to be good, to be disciplined and strong, can they defend us from the evil that is always seeking to control this world, to use us to control it. (And of course there are human beings who do train their inner minds not to oppose evil, not to defend our world against it, but to serve it, be its tools, and agents, in conquering our world for evil. And you can see their almost overwhelming success all round you.
But again, suppose you do succeed in striving to become good, to become a servant of good – will you disappear into that other world? No, of course not. But you will in a real sense live in both worlds, influence both worlds, help to “balance” both worlds.
And then? We’ve considered a little of the danger that could mean for you in this world – from the contempt, even the hostility of human beings here, to the psychic, interior assaults of evil spirits on your mind. They could go beyond that in the future, if you live long enough. Imagine what we call civilisation breaking down – even in Pleasantville. A number of possible disasters could trigger off bigger and bigger disasters, the way one stone falling can start an avalanche. Our world is so interconnected; so interdependent that what happens even ten thousand miles away can affect you. One more bank closes its doors, and the panic spreads until the world banking system is in real trouble. And that leads to trouble in international trade until suddenly your local supermarket has empty shelves. A new oil crisis. A war between minor powers that becomes nuclear –
Above all, climate change. So that the wheat belt, from Kansas to the Ukraine, no longer grows wheat. California begins to turn into desert. There’s no surplus food for Africa. Or for Russia. People start to migrate. And find closed borders and border guards, protecting places that are still good to live in – so long as no more immigrants arrive. That problem already exists in a small way along the Mexican – U.S. border. Multiply it by a thousand. Add starvation, panic, millions of people on the move with nothing to lose. How are you going to keep them out of Pleasantville? Barbed wire won’t be enough. Machine guns? There would have to be a lot of killing to keep Pleasantville pleasant. Do you remember in the oil crisis of the 70’s, how drivers got so angry in the gasoline queues they pulled out guns, shot one another? Have you read how nowadays they don’t need gasoline queues any longer, they just shoot? Crazies, drug addicts, yes. But you think they’ll become less crazy in a crisis? There’ll be so much killing there won’t be burial space.
The starving, the crazy, and the border guards. It won’t be a good time for rational argument. Pastor Polite and Father MacPleasant promise it won’t happen. God will prevent it. I wonder why He should. He gave us free will, and this is how we use it. Is He going to take it away from us? He didn’t do that in World War One, or Two, or Vietnam, or Cambodia – He never did it to the Nazis, or the Stalinists. Why should He do it for us?
Senator Successful and Professor Knowledgeable promise us it won’t happen. Congress would never allow it. The President would veto it. And Science will never allow it. Professor Knowledgeable sits on committees expressly set up to prevent anything unpleasant happening. They are looking into the ozone layer. They are examining the weather. They are measuring everything, and in the next few years they expect to publish their report telling us we will actually be better off. There is already a secret CIA document in existence that says so. It merely needs a few more statistics added and subject to security requirements it may one day be declassified. Until that happens we can all relax and watch TV.
But suppose the Senator and the Professor and his committee and the CIA are wrong? That a whole range of possible catastrophes are not all safely under control, and that one or two of them do break loose and strike us?
Suppose Pleasantville becomes an oasis in the middle of terror and anarchy, surrounded by the starving, the angry, the militant? What will happen inside the oasis? Life as usual The Republicans – or maybe the Democrats – in wise control? Elections for mayor as usual?
Or are you going to find that the old-style politicians are out of their depth and a new kind will insist on taking their places? A new kind of tough no-nonsense leader who believes that shoot first and ask questions later is the only safe policy in a crisis? Shoot the invaders before they invade? Well, what else. In Pleasantville there’s enough food, clean water, space, shelter, medical supplies, energy resources for Z thousand people. Out there in the growing desert there are 10Z thousand, maybe 100 times Z thousand. Are you going to let them all in? Some of them? How many? And how do you choose? The only real solution is kill so many the rest just go away and besiege somewhere else.
But inside Pleasantville there are likely to be objectors to this policy, you among them. What do you do? What can you do? Protest? Demonstrate? Vote against the new leaders? Plead with the Pleasantville militia not to shoot? So you get arrested and spend five days in jail for interfering with the community’s vital interests. When they let you out it’s all over. There are a lot of well-fed vultures circling round the town borders, but no one else. All that has changed for you is your file in police headquarters. “A bleeding heart”. “A Troublemaker”. Keep an eye on her, him.
Time goes by and food begins to get scarcer. Scarce. Very scarce. Rations are allocated, cut, cut again. Until the leaders decide that if everyone in Pleasantville is to be fed, no one is going to get enough for survival. Simple reason dictates that the workers, children, young mothers, should get enough. Otherwise Pleasantville will come to an end. So who loses? The old. The incurably ill. The handicapped who can’t work. The mentally unstable. It’s a dreadful decision. The leaders assure everyone that if there was an alternative they’d adopt it. But there isn’t. So new ration cards are issued to the fit and the useful, and the unfit and the useless are crossed off the census lists. Officially they no longer exist.
Again, what do you do? Share your rations with the old woman next door? Yes. But she has a sister. And a handicapped nephew. Moreover, the leaders have announced that anyone sharing their rations will lose their ration card, as obviously they don’t need it. It’s not a happy time for tender consciences.
Also, you work in the main hospital. You find a quiet unannounced policy is going on of “euthanasia”. Voluntary? Well, yes and no. People who volunteer for it are voluntary. People who don’t volunteer find it less voluntary than they had thought. The old and the unfit and useless are being eliminated. And as a nurse or doctor you’re supposed to help. Injections. Very simple, quite painless and almost instantaneous.
“But I can’t do this! My Hippocratic oath! My conscience! I’m here to save lives, not kill people!”
“OK. Tip them out into the street, sister, doctor. Leave them there to starve. If they find clean water it’ll take them three maybe four weeks to die. If they don’t and the drought is getting worse, it’ll take them a few days. Why not watch them? Or else to hell with your stupid conscience and give them a jab. It’s merciful”.
One way or another you’re going to find Pleasantville a difficult place to live in. If you make too many protests you find yourself taken to the gate in the border fence, and pushed outside. Out there there are rats to eat if you can catch them, and roots to grub up, and pools of muddy water if you can find them. There are also wild animals, and outlaws, and the outlaws are worse. They’ve turned cannibal, and there’s still flesh on your bones. They’ll enjoy hunting you down. They’ll also enjoy having a bit of fun with you before they eat you, whether you’re a him or a her.
Unthinkable? A stupid horror science fiction tale? Whatever may have happened in the past we’re too civilised now? Maybe. Lets hope so. But I wouldn’t count on it if I were now twenty-five years old. Or even forty-five. I wonder what the nice people of Russia’s version of Pleasantville were thinking in the long summers of 1910, 11, 12, 13, 14? Were they thinking about Lenin? Stalin? Gulags? I don’t imagine they were. Or nice people in France in the 1780’s? About Robespierre? The guillotine? In England in July 1914, what were the young men playing cricket thinking about? Not the trenches, Passchendaele, the Somme. And their cousins in America, and Germany and Austria and Italy? What were the quiet inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki thinking about in 1938? Or even in 1945 before the bombs fell? Or the decent ordinary people who lived round Chernobyl, what were they thinking about before the reactor failed?
No. Maybe you’ll live to be eighty-nine with no more to worry about than your tax returns. But I wouldn’t lay even money on that happening. I think we’re already living in what the Chinese call, with gallows humour, “interesting times”. I’m also afraid that if you set out to follow the advice implied in this book it may make the times even more interesting for you. Your chances of survival without some martyrdom will be greatly reduced.
Only two things will make it worthwhile. One is the plain conviction that the choices you have made and that have led you to martyrdom are the right ones. The other is that martyrdom will lead you wholly into the other world, the separate reality, and will lead you there superbly equipped not only to survive in it but also to convert it to goodness. Not you alone of course. But you with your fellow martyrs. And they may not be all that many. Every one of you will be needed. You will find a great welcome from the Presence, an enormous urgency to take you into His nearer, more intimate, service.
He will point behind you to the darkness you’ve just left and tell you, “but for you and the few like you it would be even worse. But for you it would already have ended in fire and holocaust. There would be no survivors at all, no hope, no new beginning. You have kept that hope alive in that world. Now, in this other, even more real world, build on that hope.
How? What will that other world be really like, not to glimpse through the curtain, experience in dream visions? But to live in? Who can tell you? All we have are glimpses, hints, visions. But if we put them all together we can form some kind of picture.
That other world is grey. Grey as ashes. And weirdly silent. There are no birds singing. No sounds at all. No trees. No grass. No children. No animals. Nothing that makes our world worth living in. Only a grey desert. It is already what evil wants to reduce our world to. And in a true sense it is our world, the human essence of it – the colourless greed and selfishness, not yours, or of the nice people you know, but of the rulers of our world, the way we allow our world to be governed through our weakness, our condonation of evil. It is, one might call it, the mind of our world.
Imagine a greedy, selfish man, intent only on material gains – on profits and his bank balance, on the Stock Market and his investments. On the price of everything, to buy cheap and sell dear. Intent on political power, on gaining votes and breaking promises – now visualise his body and his mind. His body still functions like the marvellous machine it is. His heart beats, his blood circulates, his glands excrete their vital chemicals, his hair grows, his cells replace themselves. Every breath he takes is a miracle. But inside his mind is grey as dead volcanic ash. Nothing grows in it, no bird, no child sings in it. There is only selfishness, a grey emptiness, horrifying, damned. Our world is the body. The other, more real world is the mind. Our world is still marvellous. But that other world of evil spirits has condemned it to destruction – as if our world had its own mind bent on destruction. And we are allowing it to happen.
Go further into that grey reality. Come to the outskirts of a city. Long buildings like barracks in a concentration camp, long, straggling lines of prisoners, hopeless, their eyes dead, faces expressionless. And guards with bestial features and savage whips. The prisoners shuffling where? To slavery, endless, eternal. In mine shafts where no light will ever enter, no hope, no laughter, no goodness.
Who are they, pitiful, lost forever? The evil? The wicked? Guilty of dreadful crimes? Genocide? Child murderers? No. Only the futile. The weak. The stupid. The self-indulgent. The greedy and lustful. The drunkards. The gluttons. No one of any account in the world of evil. Fodder for slavery.
In our world they told themselves that this world is all there is, and a fellow’s business is to look after himself and to hell with giving some sucker a helping hand. They were girls who believed that men were meal tickets. And kids were a drag. And other women were rivals to do in the eye.
They were millionaires who collected art and Don Juan’s who collected conquests. They were sluts and movie queens. Pop stars and idlers. They were pretty much Everyman and Everywoman. Now the lash curls round their naked shoulders. They once had fur coats and silk shirts. They ate caviare and drank champagne. Or they guzzled beer and frankfurters and belched and vomited to their bellies content. Now their skin hangs in grey folds, their feet are torn by the roadway and leave grey bloodstains behind them. They are too tired to weep, and who would listen if they did. And their real slavery has not yet begun.
Go on into the City. There is the same greyness, the same dead silence. No sky overhead. No stars. No dawn. No sunset. But at least the people are not slaves. They walk slowly in the streets, sit in their houses, eat, drink. Dull streets. Dull houses. No signs of pleasure in the eating or drinking. As if all real life had been sucked out of them. There was more life in the guards driving along the slave columns.
These people are also the futile and the selfish. But they earned a little respite in their lives on earth, had some savings when they arrived here. They can rent a house, pay for their board and lodging. Although not for long. One day soon the rent master will come and their savings will be exhausted. Their few good deeds, occasional good thoughts all spent – then they too will join the shuffling columns on their way to the mines.
You need to go further still and much lower down to find any signs of what you and I would call life. Down to the level where the rent masters and the guards live. There, in subterranean dwellings, reached by shafts from the surface, there are even signs of a raucous, squalid pleasure. Drunkenness and gluttony, greasy foods thrown about, liquor spilled. The stench of drunken vomit, scenes of fornication, naked bodies twisted together, great buttocks heaving and thrusting, laughter of a hellish kind. Yet still silent. As if the air was too heavy to carry sound.
Are these the wicked and the evil? The governors? Not by a long way. These are simply the bad. In our world they were the criminals, the crooked politicians, the cheating wives and husbands, the petty murderers, the businessmen who lived by doing down the foolish and trusting. The cruel, the stupidly brutal and heartless. The secret policemen who tortured prisoners because they were told to and found they enjoyed it. The bullyboys. The gangsters girl friends. The Madames of brothels. The pimps. The shady lawyers, the hypocrites, the wife beaters and child abusers, the exploiters of the weak.
And such creatures should have pleasure? Should lord it over the merely futile and feeble? Well, why not? – You think it’s possible that the futile and feeble could lord it over them? But as for pleasure, look at them. Pleasure that never comes to fulfilment. Pleasure overshadowed by a constant, gnawing terror, as if a rat had sunk its teeth into each of their hearts.
Terror of what? Of those who do lord it over them, and who one day will devour them when all else of value to evil has been wrung out of them. They are in terror of the wicked and the evil. But to find such spirits you must go lower down again, into the depths of the city. There you will find quiet banquets. Persian carpets, works of art, luxury. Soft footed servants. The wicked are like guests at a Roman banquet. But they can savour nothing except cruelty. Summoning down a used up guard or rent master, beckoning other guards to take one of the servants, torture her, castrate him. And for a moment sunken eyes almost come to life, bloodless lips almost smile. But the soundless screams of agony die away, and the moment of almost pleasure fades.
Here too there is terror, deeper seated, more subtle. How long must this go on? Forever? Can it never end? And the guests get heavily, lifelessly to their feet. It’s time to go and see the exhibitions. There is a new one reported to be worth looking at. A man and a woman. Quite ordinary in their lives. All they did was to sacrifice everyone round them to be together. The man sacrificed his wife, his children, all decency to be with the woman. The woman intrigued to displace the wife who had been her friend. Such an ordinary couple.
Now they are together forever. They sit in a windowless room. The man in an armchair, the woman at a table. Already they cannot bear to look at one another. What will they be like, feel like in a thousand years time? Ten thousand? It’s almost a pleasure to think about it. The desolation of their minds, their absolute, infinite despair.
There are deeper layers, or levels, of dwelling places in the City. In these no one is concerned with such simple pleasures. The rooms become like monks’ cells, the spirits in them austere as anchorites, their minds absorbed in the purity of evil. In our world, in their human lives, they were the secret rulers. No one knew who or what they were. Their lives seemed ordinary. They committed no crimes. At least with their own hands. Those who knew them respected them, if they also feared them. But even they are far from the ultimate in evil, and they too in their bare cells are shaken by spasms of terror, their contemplation of evil brings them no contentment. They think of the god they worship and their lips tremble. His servants come to their plain doorways and whisper, and they fall to their knees, praying to be spared.
They can only be spared if they devise more evil, create it, radiate it, drive their subordinates of the upper levels to do worse things, commit worse horrors. Oh, not the childish horrors and amusements that ease their banquets, but serious evils that will bring the living world deeper into the control of evil, of their god, make escape impossible, the idea of goodness unthinkable. Above all that will drive away the Presence from the gateway to this world, drive out his influence, until there is no corner of the Universe that is not in the grip of evil. Until at last all that ever belonged to the Presence can be destroyed, devoured, burned to grey ashes.
Go down further again, to where these governing servants of evil have their being. Figures of darkness living, existing in darkness. Surrounded by a black light that was once called “darkness made visible”. Huge figures. An impression of black wings, leathery, stinking. And round their clawed feet smaller figures crawling, beseeching. These figures seem made of ashes, and they crawl in the thick ashes of the floor, among the droppings of the black, winged servants of the god of evil.
They beg for mercy, and they are kicked aside, ashes falling from their ash bodies. They are the discarded servants of the servants of the god of evil, the failures. Slowly disintegrating, flakes of ash by flakes of burned flesh turned to ashes. But it takes eternity for them to disintegrate. Go lower still. Down to where the god of evil is on his iron throne. The iron burns with hatred, and in the same instant is so ice gripped with pride that it sticks to the burned flesh of the god. He cannot move. His motionless wings cover his agony. Some of his great servants crawl at his feet, around the throne, worshipping his terrible, wounded beauty. His beauty that of the lightning.
From him evil pours in a stream like black blood. It is the evil of his agony, his pride, his hatred. In front of him hangs the object of his hatred. It is the Presence hanging on beams of blackened timber, nailed to them, hands and feet. But the Presence hangs there, silent, waiting. Waiting to offer mercy.
What can you do for Him? What can you do for either of them? Only come away in silence. There is a dark tunnel leading away out of that darkness. Like a mineshaft hacked out of rock. Stench of Sulphur. Heat that stops your breath. Further and further in the deepest reaches of horror. Slaves excavating still more chambers, black caves. Guards torturing them. Devouring them, gnawing the bones of their human food.
In the completed caves – do you want to see what happens in them? A beautiful woman beckoning. Lust shaping her mouth like ripe fruit. Her skin like amber. Touch her, desire her, and your hand sticks to her flesh, burns, the flesh falls away, she tries to wrap her arms round you, kiss your mouth, fasten her burning hands on your genitals –
In another cave a man is screaming in the darkness, silent, heart wrenching screams that hurt your ears, as animals tear his feet from his legs, his hands from his arms, fasten their teeth in his crotch and stomach. In God’s name! What did he ever do for this to go on unending?
He killed animals, a guard says carelessly. He enjoyed it while he was alive.
Cave after cave. In a larger space men and women in dirty robes are celebrating Mass. A servant of evil, of the god of evil, squats on the altar and gives them their communion from his anus, forces it down their gagging throats, lashes their ragged bleeding shoulders with his iron spiked tail.
“They were hypocrites” the guard says, watching them with sombre anxiety that none escape. “I think that one was a Pope. Now they have something to believe in”.
In another open space, a kind of smaller cul de sac at the end of one of the shafts, there is a group of spirits kneeling, begging their guards to let them go.
“We weren’t sentenced to be here forever”. Their spokesman pleads. “Only for a million years. We’ve served our time, you have to let us go”.
“Then find your way out of here” a guard sneers at them. But they can’t.
“How can you have served a million years?” You ask him. ”Oh, time here moves sideways. Up and down”.
“Who sentenced you? Who could possibly have been so cruel? The god of evil?” The spokesman looks at you in amazement. “Him? He is worse off than we are. His sentence is forever. And when it ends it has to begin again”.
Then who? Not the Presence?
“The spokesman falls to his knees, clasps your feet. “You know the Presence? Oh, tell Him we are here, imprisoned. Tell Him and He’ll come for us”.
“He can’t. He’s nailed to a beam in front of the god of evil’s throne. He can’t move”.
“He can! He can! You can free Him long enough for Him to come here and set us free”.
“I? How can I do that?”
“Give Him your self. Give Him your strength. He can use it to come here”.
“But I still don’t understand who sentenced you. Not Him? Not evil? Not Him?
“No, no! We sentenced ourselves. How could we hide anywhere but here, the way we were? But look, look, see my hands, see my body. No more leprosy. No more evil. Clean flesh. Only they won’t let us go. They won’t show us the way out of here and we are afraid to move. You! You found your way down here. Lead us out into the light”.
“Me? How? I don’t know the way”.
“You do! You do!” the men and women, the cleansed, frightened, pleading spirits crowd round you, clasp your knees, your hands, call to you over the heads of their companions. “Lead us out of here, for the mercy of God! How can you abandon us? We have become innocent again. All we need is a guide, a leader”.
And then, as you stand dumbfounded, they shrink back from you, shuddering. He is one of them, sent to torment us with hope. Oh, monstrous cruelty. Go away, leave us, go back to your master, tell him you succeeded for a moment, deceived us. Let him triumph over us again. But one day we shall be freed – While you! Never!”
On and on through horrors. “Could I have freed them? Led them to safety?” you ask your dark companion.
“If you were good enough” he sneers. “Be glad I have no power to keep you here. Not yet”. And he brushes an iron claw against your face. “You know what your punishment will be?”
“For what? Why should I be punished? I’ve done no one any harm!” “No? Did you do them any good? You live your life in blindness to good and evil. Well, when you come to me I’ll blind you forever. Not just once, but every day.” And the tip of a claw touches your eyeball, bruises it. “Now, little human being, here you are. Free again. For a while. It won’t be long”.
And suddenly you step out of an opening back into the greyness of the surface. A great weight lifts from you. But there is still a long way to go. The grey heathland stretches out in front of you to a grey, mist-shrouded horizon. Behind you a rock cliff, black basalt. Behind that again the mountains.
Start walking towards the horizon. Grey thorns. Jagged grey rocks. Sharp stones. Your feet bare. Soon they are torn to bloody shreds. The cold grips your naked body, an icy wind flays it. Day after day of walking. Hunger. Thirst. Throat dry and tongue swollen. Eyes half frozen shut. Seeming to stumble on forever.
Until at last the ground seems to lift a little from that dreadful plain, the air grows a shade lighter, the horizon clearer. Until now sleep has been impossible, day after day, night after night. But you can sleep at last. Sink into sleep like the final mercy. Sleep forever. Sleep for a long time, certainly.
And then start awake. The greyness no longer a dead, unending greyness, but lightening, receiving colour. More and more colour, until the sky blazes, crimson, gold, becomes so blue it hurts the eyes to look at it. Morning has broken! Oh thank God, thank God, morning again! The sky! The sun!
And in the East, black as iron against that dazzling sky a great curved shaft, like a gigantic bridge, curving up into the blue of Heaven. The Bridge! The Bridge! The entrance way to Paradise! Run! Run forward!
But as you run, the details of the Bridge become clearer. The great iron shaft, easy to climb, gives way to a steel blade, razor-edged. How could one dare climb on that? On that narrow, narrow curve of steel. One slip and you’d fall. Fall where? And looking down into the abyss below the iron tower of the bridge you can see the hint of flames and oily, blackened smoke. So far down it gives you vertigo to look, your head becomes dizzy, your knees shake. Cross over that chasm, on that narrow blade?
“It can be done” a voice whispers.
Whose? There is no one there. “How?” “It is very easy. You can float across. All you need do is become good. And in becoming good you’ll save others, who’ve served their self-inflicted sentences back there across the heath, deep in the mountains. Bring them with you”.
“Who are you? Telling me this? How can I believe you?”
“I am your soul. I am the Presence in you. You can believe me” And in that instant you are waking in your bed. Out of your dream, your fantasy of good and evil. Waking to the real world, with your mortgage to pay and your way to make. I hope you make it.
Wait! – “The End? – But there are still things I want to know! All those people in the mineshafts. The slaves in the barracks. Can they ever be freed? Are they there forever? Eternity?”
“On you for one. You could free them. Some of them, if you become good enough. Loved enough. Sacrificed enough”.
“Yes. Those stories, those fantasies, tell you how important you are – or could be if you accepted the challenge” And the guards? The great servants of evil.
“Those too. Even those”.
“But not the god of evil? Never him?” “Him most of all. That’s why the Presence hangs there, offering him love, offering him mercy. Offering the Presence’s agony to save him. And you could help”.
“Oh no! Not me! This is all fantasy isn’t it? Just a story in a stupid book?”
“Of course it is. Just fantasy. Unless you choose to make it real”.
And that really is the end, at least of this story. For you it may be only the beginning. That is all my hope.
You’re still not satisfied? You want to know what would have happened, what you would have seen if you had managed to cross that Sword Bridge? Very well, all fantasies need a happy ending, let’s imagine one for ours. Let’s suppose that you decide to change your life – or that you’ve always been so good you’ve never needed to change it. And at last, at the exact predestined moment – for there are no accidents about such things – you die, and enter that tunnel the patients describe in their near-death experiences. Suppose that at the end of that tunnel you come out into a blinding area of light, like an Italian piazza at midday in summer, and facing you, is not the Presence to tell you you must return to our unreal reality, but a mirror. In that mirror you see all your life, not in sequence like a film, but instantaneously, like a living portrait, everything you have ever done, or said, or thought, or suffered – the good, the bad, the ugly, the humiliating. A moral balance sheet, but more vivid than any balance sheet could ever be. And one, that in this case we’re imagining for you, shows you to be in credit. More good than bad.
Because there is more good than bad you’ll find it very hard to believe. And while you stand wondering how the powers-that-be could have so misjudged you, given you so much undeserved credit, there is someone else beside you, having the opposite experience – and you are allowed to see what is happening to them. They are deeply in the red – almost no credit side at all to their account, and they too are refusing to believe what they see. “It’s not true!” they cry silently, and then aloud “it wasn’t like that!”
At which point you become aware of what we have called the Presence – but not visible as it was for the near-death story tellers; simply there, waiting, watching to see what this second spirit would do. The other thing you also become aware of is a crowd of spirits on the far side of the piazza, waving and smiling, not to you, but to the angry spirit beside you, the one rejecting its mirrored balance sheet. In the same moment this angry spirit also becomes aware of the crowd across the piazza, and seems to recognise the people in it. “Uncle Tom! Fred! Jane! Mother! Dad! Why, Johnny, it’s you!”
“Come along over to us, Harry boy!” one of the spirits in the crowd calls out. “Are they showing you that damn mirror trick? Don’t mind them, just come over here. We’ve been waiting for you!”
“But it says here – my God, what doesn’t it say!”
“Lies, boy, don’t pay any heed to it – it’s a bunch of religious maniacs sets it up, trying to catch people out. It’s all over now, Harry lad, all the bad times – it’s all joy from now on. We’ve got one hell of a party lined up for you, all the old gang. We’ve been getting the party ready for days” –
“Don’t go!” the Presence whispers, “they’re not what they seem. Look in the mirror again. Accept it”.
And the Presence draws you aside and says, “Look, look at what’s waiting for him”.
You look, and your blood runs cold. In place of all those welcoming friends and family there are monstrous faces, bestial, leering, grinning in anticipation. But the angry spirit cannot see them, only the false appearance of his friends. He takes a step towards them, and they beckon and call, smile and wave. “Come on, Harry boy, we’re waiting for you. All the girls are crazy to see you again”.
“No!” the Presence begs him – “Please! Think. Remember what you saw in the mirror”. But the man walks forward, breaks into a run.
“Gee, that mirror thing gave me a nasty moment. What a hell of a trick to greet a guy”.
His supposed friends welcome him with handclasps and embraces, swarm round him, lead him away.
“What will happen to him?” you ask the Presence.
“Look” the Presence says, and points to the same mirror that showed you your own balance sheet. The man is being led down a stairway into a pleasant room – like a nightclub, candlelit, full of warm shadows. Wine bottles. Champagne. Nude dancers on a stage. Music. You can even hear music as you look into the mirror; hear the murmur of voices, sudden laughter, the shouts of welcome as the spirit is led in by his “friends”. “Harry boy! For he’s a jolly good fellow, he’s a jolly good fellow, and so say all of us!”
“He has four hours of this,” the Presence whispers to you.
“Wait and see”. The party grows wilder. More and more champagne. Naked dancers sitting in the guest of honour’s lap, and yet once or twice his face growing thoughtful, a shadow of anxiety crossing it. And you know that he is hearing the Presence’s voice, just as you hear it, saying, “Get up and leave! Run for your life! It’s still not too late”.
But the longer he stays, the harder it is to leave. His glass is refilled before he can empty it, a girl is kneeling beside his chair, another one is leaning over his shoulder, nibbling his ear, whispering promises. In the mirror there is a clock, time running out – four hours becoming three, two, one, a few minutes left.
“Get up, for God’s sake!” the Presence calls to him. “Run!” The man half staggers to his feet, stares round him as if unsure whether he had heard anything. Two minutes more. A round of cheers. “Hip hip hooray for Harry!”
The two girls lead Harry away, out of the main room of the nightclub, whispering promises.
“No!” the Presence whispers, but a door opens, Harry is led through – and the mirror shows a room like a waiting room in a hospital, bleak, empty, antiseptic. The only objects there are glass cases hanging on the far wall, full of bright steel instruments, a gleaming butcher’s cleaver, saws, knives.
The man stares at them, tries to laugh, looks round him, but the girls have gone, vanished. He turns back to the doorway into the nightclub, but the door is no longer there. “Fred! Tom! Helga! Where the – What the hell is going on?”
In a dark corner of the empty room another door opens, and figures come bursting in, wearing surgeon’s green gowns and face-masks, squat, powerful, horrifying, huge hands and feet. Lights blaze, like spotlights in an operating theatre, paralysing the man where he stands.
“Who – what – let me go, damn you! Help, oh God!”
But the four hours have gone by. The mirror’s surface is blank, mist covered.
“Come with me” the Presence, says, the voice full of sadness. “We can do nothing for him now”.
“But can’t we – can’t you?”
“He chose. Do you want me to cancel his choice? Do away with his free will?”
“Is he to be there for ever?” “That depends. Someone may rescue him. Even you. But not yet. Not for a long time yet”.
“Can I not go to him now? He would – ”
“Are you strong enough? Against all of them?”
You know the answer. You are not. “What must I do?”
“Grow stronger. I am pleased with you. But even so you have a long way to go, a long journey ahead of you”.
“Where do I start? Where must I go?”
“You start here. And you must find the way for yourself. You will be helped here and there”.
With that the Presence is gone. You’re alone in a pleasant, but narrow countryside. Narrow, because to your right there is a wall of forest, dark and uninviting. To your left there is a curious, pale curtain of mist, as uninviting as the forest.
But the ground between these two limits is fair enough. Cropped turf as if sheep were grazed on it. And crops of rock, a grey sky overhead, a feeling of freedom, of adventure, of a long journey ahead, but one for which you are well enough prepared. Until out of the forest to your right comes racing a large black animal, like a live projectile, white snarl of fangs, long black tail stretched behind like a rudder, belly low to the ground. Your heart half stopping in terror, mind uncertain whether to stand or run. But run where? And with what chance against such speed and power. A black panther? Some kind of giant cat, big as a timber wolf, twice as dangerous.
Run or stand? Instinct, a voice in your mind, whispers, “Stand your ground”.
The white snarl is ten feet away, five, three – this is death all over again, and a worse one than you’ve already suffered. Until you realise that the panther – if it is a panther – has come to a violent halt, is crouched at your feet, telling you something. Telling? An animal telling you something? Yes. In your mind, quietly, by telepathy, if you want to give it a name.
“I am your friend. Your ally and companion, to help you on your journey. It is good that you stood firm”. “And if I hadn’t? If I had run away?”
“Running away from danger would be a poor start to any journey, particularly when no danger was really there”.
“Who are you? What are you?”
“I have told you. I am your friend. Your companion”.
“Who sent you to me?”
“He did. She did”.
“They are one and the same. Your master and mine. Your mistress and mine. I bring Her love to you. I am Her love”.
“How will you help me?”
“You will see very soon”.
You go on together, you and the Black Panther, down the corridor of turf between the forest and the mist. Until slowly the corridor opens out, the forest falls back, and there are hills and valleys to your right, bare and featureless. The panther leads the way into one of the valleys, that climbs among bare hillsides to a bleak saddle, a chill wind blowing. And there on the saddle of turf between the twin hill tops a dozen or so men and women are standing, sitting, lying on the grass, oddly still, motionless.
When you get close enough you can see that although their eyes are open they seem to be looking at nothing, as if they were hypnotised into a state of trance. None of them turn to look at you. None of them seem to be in the least aware of you or of the great animal beside you.
“Who are they? What are they doing here? What’s wrong with them?” “They are the escapees”, the panther says. “There are always some here. It’s a collecting point”.
“A collecting point? For what?”
“For them. The demons will be coming soon to gather them up. As soon as there are enough of them”.
“But why? Who are they? What have they done to be like this?”
“They have done nothing. That’s the trouble. They have been neither good nor bad, sinful or repentant. All through their lives on earth they avoided taking sides. All they wanted to do was to escape from all responsibility. All their lives long they dreamed of finding a private paradise – a safe, beautiful Utopia where nothing would ever be demanded of them. If they had to work they dreamed of finding it when they retired – a country cottage, a remote fishing village, an apartment in Paris on the Left Bank, a villa in Tuscany, an old farm house somewhere, a hacienda in Mexico”.
“If they were rich they spent their lives looking for it. They did no one any harm. But they did no one any good. They never sided with evil. But they never fought against it. Their constant plea was “leave me alone. Let me escape. A plague on both your houses”. And if they were in any way believers in an after life they imagined that life as a wonderful retirement from the world, an enlargement, an enrichment of their material dreams. They have found that here”.
“Here?” Looking round in amazement at the cold, barren hills.
“Yes. They are not seeing what you see. That one there, the fat one, sees a desert island in the South Seas. Palm trees and native girls in grass skirts, bringing him coconut wine. That thin old woman is in a palazzo in Venice, surrounded by servants. At this exact moment she is summoning her private gondola”.
“And the others?”
“And you say the demons will collect them soon?”
“Yes. Each has an allotted time. Based on any good they may have happened to do. Some can stay here for a month or so. And if there are only two or three the demons may leave them longer until a collecting trip is worthwhile. But none of them are left very long”.
“Nothing pleasant, I’m afraid. The shock of being collected is terrible enough by itself. And then the mockery”.
“But we must wake them now! Tell them the danger they’re in!”
They cannot be woken. At the most they grumble a little in their trance sleep.
“We must go on,” the panther says. “You can do no good here and we’re needed elsewhere”. She leads the way down the farther side of the saddle. The tranced figures vanish behind the curve of the hilltop. And spread out below is the sea, and a long, broad stretch of golden beach.
There are human figures there too, but this time moving, walking restlessly by the edge of the quiet sea, or stopping for a moment to peer out at something, anxiety and fear in their gesture visible even at a distance.
“And they?” you ask the panther. “More escapers?”
“Oh no. They are like you. On their way to the bridge, and beyond. Only” –
“When their companions came to help them, they were afraid, and ran away. So they are alone. They have each other of course, but their fears feed on each other. They are afraid to swim out to sea”.
“Out there? But – The horizon is a faint, straight line where grey sea meets grey, lowering sky. No land breaks its evenness. Only sea and sky. “There is nowhere to swim to”.
“Nowhere visible no”.
“Then no wonder they’re afraid! Are we supposed to swim out to nothing?”
“And if I don’t? –
“You were afraid of me,” the panther says. “But there was no need. Maybe there is no need now. Shall we go down?”
On the beach the other figures, men and women, crowd round you, exclaiming at the horror of their position, explaining it, crying out against its terrible injustice – then shrinking back from the panther as it looks at them.
“There’s a seagull – it keeps coming back to us, telling us we have to follow it out there. It’s madness. No one could swim that far even if there was land just below the horizon. To trust a seagull!”
“Come” the panther tells you, “leave them. The only help you can offer them is by example. Let us swim. Go gently, we’ve a long way to go”.
Wading out, thigh deep, chest deep, striking forward into the cool, calm sea.
“No!” the people on the beach call after you. “There are monsters out there. Sharks. We’ve seen their shadows”.
Swimming for what seems hours. The grey light unchanging, grey sea, grey sky, the shore and its human figures long lost behind you. The panther swimming easily, gliding through the water. While you grow tired.
“Hold on to me” the panther says. Grasp the fur at my neck”.
Hour after hour, swimming. Until, rising sheer out of the sea, cliffs shape themselves against the sky, black against grey, threatening. At their foot, jagged rocks and the slow swell and suck of the waves. And there too are creatures, waiting, lying among the rocks, snouts lifted, sniffing for food, tails coiled, claws gripping wet surfaces, dark bodies half buried in seaweed.
“They prey on fear,” the panther says. “Climb out boldly among them and they will not touch you”.
It is a hard thing to do, but as you clamber out beside them, among them, the creatures stay quiet, only their snouts lifting a little, sniffling, and sniffing for the scent of fear.
“We have to climb to the top,” the panther says. “There are hand holds and ledges”.
“But you panther, can you climb that?”
“No” the panther answers, “You must carry me”. It’s not possible. It seems impossible even without a burden but carrying the panther?
“And if I can’t?” “Then I must stay here. It is not possible to go back, the currents run this way”. The panther’s weight is enormous. Clinging to your shoulders.
Cold wet fur against your back. And the handholds in the cliff face are wet with spray and sea mist, smooth, slippery. Climbing hand over hand, searching blindly for foot holds, finding a ledge no broader than your foot. Fifty feet up, a hundred, afraid to look down, the panther’s weight growing heavier by the minute. The cliff top high above your head, dizzying, unreachable. Up and up, gasping for breath, eyes blinded with a chill sweat, fingers numb and feet bleeding. Until at last your hand reaches for another crevice and finds air above it, reaches further in, over the edge of rock, and you are at the top, heaving the last few feet upwards, lying face down on turf, the panther beside you, its purring a deep rumble of pleasure in its massive throat. “Well done. Well done”.
Crawling forward, away from the cliff’s edge, to fall asleep where you lie, exhausted.
The journey, your journey – each person’s journey, is different – continues into the mountains. They lie ahead like a sullen barrier of grey stone, piled against the unchanging greyness of the sky, eternal twilight. Higher and higher, colder, until patches of greyish snow lie in the hollow of the rocks. There is no road, no path, not even a track. The panther leads the way, across long slopes of broken, slithering stones where a false step could start an avalanche. The snow is deeper, heavy drifts of it in the hollows, soon it covers everything, and feet and hands grow frozen, losing all feeling.
“Up there” the panther says. Small in the distance the black mouth of a cave breaks the uneven blanket of the snow, just below a long ridge. “There is our goal. The first of them”.
It takes another hour to reach it, the air thin, your lungs tightening, straining for breath, the dull pain of cold filling your body, urging rest, sleep, lie down and rest in the snow. But it would be a rest with no end. Inside the cave it seems even colder. A powdering of snow on the floor of it, and a curious smell, like stale, sour breath. The cave runs deep into the mountains sloping downwards, steeper and steeper, until it’s difficult not to slide and fall. The grey light from the cave mouth fades, vanishes, there is nothing to guide you but your numbed hands touching the narrowed walls of the cave. It is like a mineshaft sloping down.
“I shall stay here,” the panther says. “You go on. There will be light to see by in a little while”.
“Why are you ?- ”
“You must go down alone”.
“What is down there?”
“You will see”
Steeper and steeper. Sliding, falling, the blackness thick as a blanket, stifling, the stale, sour breath of the cave growing fouler, sulphurous, like wet coal slack burning. And as the panther promised, after a time the blackness gradually gives way to a kind of light – a dull red like the glow of a furnace.
The walls of the shaft begin to take shape, smooth, glossy, black basalt. And there, suddenly, the shaft ends its sloping, and plunges vertically down.
It’s terrifying to look at, let alone lean forward on the glossy slope to see where the plunge falls to. But the furnace glow comes from it. And dull sounds. A murmur like distant voices. The sharper sound of metal against stone. As if miners were down there, hacking out still more of the shaft or mining something. Gold? Jewels?
The panther’s voice seems to be whispering in your mind – although the panther herself is far up the shaft near the daylight – “go on, go down, let yourself slide and fall”.
Turning round in the narrow space, letting your feet hang over the mouth of the well, fingers clutching at smooth stone. Let go? Fall into an unknown depth?
“Go on! Let go!
Falling, and hitting a slope of loose stones, sliding unhurt down to a level floor of rock. The light is stronger here, dull red, flickering, and the smell has become a vile stench, choking, nauseating. A passage leads forward, and suddenly, almost blindingly, opens into a lit cavern, vast, broad, cathedral high, galleries high up in its walls, other shafts opening left and right, a honeycomb of mouths, round and black, one like another, leading out of the cavern.
And on the cavern floor a crowd of people, men and women, huddled together, in rags. Their bodies emaciated, scarred, their hair tangled, some of them squatting on the cavern floor, some of them looking with dull eyes towards you, attracted by the sound of your sliding fall, as loose stones scatter and roll around you.
“These are why you have come,” the panther’s voice whispers. “Bring them to me”.
Go towards them. They are all standing now, staring, as if you have come from nowhere. Hope in some of the dulled eyes – not much hope, but a little, like candlelight. Others look at you in grey hopelessness, as if hope had failed too often.
And then, out of dark corners come the guards. All too obviously guards. Bare chested, gross in flesh and feeding, brutal featured, carrying heavy whips.
“Well, little guide” one of them jeers, “what are you going to do now you’re here?”
“Take them above”, you answer, know you must answer.
“You have no right to hold them down here any longer”.
The guard’s thick lips are sneering. “One of you. Ten of us. And them” pointing his whip at the men and women. “Lets see how you mean to take them away from us”.
“Show him your power” the panther’s voice is whispering, power you earned on earth. Open your arms, wide, wider. Look. See the light growing, from your hands”.
And from each of your hands there is light, golden shafts of light, and a ring of light forming, wider and more powerful as you stretch your arms wider. Until the circle of light encloses the crowd of men and women like a golden wall.
“Now lead them to the shaft down which you fell” the voice whispers, deeply purring. “Tell them to climb on one another’s shoulders. Up into the sloping shaft. I am on guard here”.
One by one climbing, sliding, crying out in sudden fear of falling, voices calling, complaining of the pitch darkness above, the guards crowding forward, and then held back by the wall of light from your hands. You going last, climbing the slope of loose stones, reaching up, catching a man’s hands, being dragged up. Turning swiftly to create the barrier again, stretching your arms out, holding the guards at bay.
Climbing the shaft, urging the men and women on, up, reassuring them that they are safe now, although only God knows if they really are. A man says to you, “we have been waiting for you I don’t know how long. Years and years. What kept you? Didn’t you know that we were waiting? Our purgatory finished”?
“1 came as soon as I could”.
Men and women crying with fear, with relief. And a sudden shout of terror as someone sees the panther, the whole column of climbers brought to a stumbling halt as the foremost climbers shrink backwards, in sudden panic.
“There is a guard ahead, a monster, I saw its red eyes gleaming!”
Passing them, finding the panther, reassuring the frightened people, trying not to feel scorn. What have they suffered, during endless years; to break their spirits, rob them of hope, lead them to believe that every new hope is only a delusion? But for God’s infinite mercy to you you would be like them and worse than them. Without the panther could you have come here at all?
And into the grey twilight, the open air, the snow – and the men and women standing still, drawing deep breaths of cleanness, although the stench of the cavern still clings to them, to their rags. Their bodies scarred by the whips of the guards, their eyes dark hollows in gaunt, ravaged faces.
It seems shameful to be well fed and healthy beside their starved, bruised nakedness.
“We go over the ridge,” the panther says. “Then down. You must keep them all together. I’ll lead the way. You come behind them”.
“Will the guards follow us?” “No. But there are other dangers”.
They follow the panther timidly, uncertain, still doubting their freedom. You go last. Over the high, sharp ridge, down into a bleak valley. There are several valleys, one broad and tempting to the left, a hint of green far down in its shadowy lower reaches, the glint of water, a river.
“There!” some of the people call out. “Paradise at last!” But the panther takes a narrow, stony valley to the right. Half a dozen men object, begin to climb down into the left hand valley.
“Gather them!” the panther commands.
You try. Bar the way to them, argue. But it’s useless. “You mean well” they say. “You rescued us. But we’ve been tricked and duped before. Maybe you’re a guard in disguise. And that animal. What can it know about anything? We can see our way now. We’d be wretched imbeciles to let an animal and a stranger lead us away into the mountains when we can see where we ought to go”.
They run round you and your barrier of light has no effect on them. They are no longer evil. That has been purged away. But not their folly. And your power is only against evil. You watch them running, growing smaller in the distance.
“What will happen to them? Will they be caught again? “No” the panther answers. “They are free of that. But they have chosen a very long, hard way to reach Paradise. Let them go. We can do nothing more for them”.
The way leads deeper and deeper into the mountains. Down narrow gullies of bare rock, that open for a moment into wider patches with dull grey turf here and there. The snow is gone and it is no longer so cold, but cold enough. The men and women begin to complain that you are leading them the wrong way, you are lost, or else a false guide. Some want to turn back, others to elect their own leader, choose their own way forward.
“If you expected gratitude, see how wrong you were” the panther whispers. “Do you remember the story of Moses in the wilderness? The people of Israel came to hate him. We shall be lucky if they don’t stone us soon!”
“But they are repentant. They have finished their purgatory!” “No” the panther tells you. “They have finished one part of it. They still have things to learn”.
“You too” the panther says. “You too have much to learn”.
A dozen of the men and women are deciding to go back, to find the broad valley. The remainder hesitate.
“For God’s sake!” you shout at them. “Are you so stupid you understand nothing? Didn’t I save you from the guards? Show you the only way out of your prison? Didn’t the panther bring me here to rescue you? What hope have you of finding your way if you go off by yourselves? Trust me? Trust us both!”
But they are beyond trusting. Or have not yet reached the stage of trust, of trusting anyone. In their lives on earth they trusted only themselves. They had no faith, no belief in anything or anyone. Here they remain the same.
“They have to learn trust, faith,” the panther says sadly. “They have to learn to believe in goodness, that someone could truly mean them well, make sacrifices for them. Let them go”.
The dozen men and women go back the way they had just came, eyes averted, half ashamed yet determined.
“Are the rest of you willing to go on? To trust us?” They hesitate, look at one another, begin to nod their heads, but sullenly, as if they have no real trust in you. The way leads down more steeply, the sides of the valley fall back, flatten out into a plain, more rocks than grass. The cold has given way to a dull warmth. The grass gives way to sand, the warmth grows, strengthens, and the plain becomes a desert. Sand. Rocks. Thorn scrub. And still the same grey sky, heavy and leaden now.
The desert seems to stretch forever. The heat weighs on everyone. Sweat runs and dries, until there is no more sweat to run. Mouths like dry leather, tongues swollen. The men and women mutter angry, despairing curses. “We knew it was wrong, hopeless. We should have turned back with the others. You are demons, you and that monstrous panther. Worse than the guards. Kill us now, put an end to our torture”. And then one crying out in joy, “Look! An oasis! Water! Trees!”
Away, far away, to the left.
They begin to run, stagger towards it.
“Bring them back,” the panther commands. “It’s only a mirage”.
But they won’t obey. Stumbling towards it, holding out their arms to it, as it retreats before them. Running after them, pleading, commanding, shouting uselessly, until one by one they fall exhausted, onto hands and knees, yet still crawling towards their illusion of green trees and water.
“Fools! Ingrates! Can’t you see? Understand? There is nothing there! Only more sand and rocks! Get up, follow the panther, she knows the way”.
But they lie where they fall, sullen and unmoving.
“If you don’t get up and follow we’ll leave you here!”
“We don’t care. We were better off in the mines. Go on and leave us”.
Dragging them to their feet, pushing, pulling, exasperated, brutal. “Come On! Move!”. Only their exhausted hopelessness makes them obey. Obedience is easier than rebellion. But some refuse to move, still staring longingly at that non-existent promise of ease and coolness. “Leave us alone. In a little while we’ll be stronger. We’ll get to the oasis”.
“We must leave them” the panther says, “or we’ll lose everyone”.
“What will happen to them?”
“They’ll stay here. Until after a long while you come back for them. They need more time to learn”.
“And these don’t? The ones who’re still with us?” At least they’re moving in the right direction
The slow, silent procession trudging onwards, soft, exhausting sand, then bare, foot burning patches of rock. Vicious thorn bushes. Until the ground begins to rise again, the shadow of hills ahead, more mountains. A man falls, lies where he has fallen, refuses to move.
“Look, there are hills ahead! The desert is coming to an end!”
“I don’t care. My feet are in agony. Let me die here”.
“The women can keep going. So can you”. Hauling him upright, pushing him, supporting him. The air growing cooler. Blades of grass in a crevice among stones. Lichen on a rock. A pocket-handkerchief of turf. Hope growing, the people moving more easily, faster.
“Are we nearly there?”
“Not yet” the panther says.
“Is it much further?”
“A long way. Very long”.
The way leads through the second range of mountains, along the floor of a narrow canyon between sheer walls of rock a thousand, and two, and three thousand feet high. The protests and grumbling doubts of the diminished company die away into exhaustion. To put one foot in front of another is all that most of them can manage. The one relief is that the canyon floor slopes downwards, steadily, gently. But it is brutally hard going. Loose, rounded stones cover it, as if once, long ago, a river flowed the length of the canyon, rolling and polishing these stones as it ran in spate after storms of rain. Now the canyon is as dry as the desert, and baking hot, the heat beating at them from the stone walls of the cliffs.
But suddenly the canyon opens out, the cliffs grow lower, fade into vague hummocks and sloping shelves of rock, vanish altogether. There is rough grass, reeds, a smell of damp, of marshland. The stones underfoot give way to earth, and then to mud. The travellers fall to their knees to scoop up moisture, squeeze it against their cracked lips in an ecstasy of coolness. But the panther tells you to urge them on deeper and deeper into the marsh, until all are wading knee deep in dark brown water.
There is the smell of decay everywhere, rotting vegetation, fallen tree trunks – the mud disturbed by so many wading feet releases great bubbles of stinking gas into the heavy air. There are more trees, more and more of them, closing in on the water way, impenetrable because of their inter lacing of thick roots and trailing branches. Someone cries out that there are water snakes, but this time there is no bunching together in terror, no sense of panic. The company seems to have grown braver, hardier. There is a sense of achievement to have come so far, a growing trust in you and in the panther as faithful guides.
Even so the marsh that has become a jungle swamp is frightening. It is very dark among the towering trees. In the brown, stinking water creatures are moving, squirming away under foot. An enormous serpent hangs down from a branch, its flat, gaping, jawed head, blindly swaying, seeking food. Having to wade past it, not letting fear attract its hunger. A huge alligator lying on a mud bank, small eyes half open, its blunt muzzle also searching for the scent of fear.
Someone screams, overcome by terror, and the great, slime glistening body of the alligator slides into the water, jaws gaping. The screams grow piercing, horrifying. “What can I do?” you beg the panther. And she answers “Nothing”.
The screams are cut off, become bubbles of air breaking the surface of the swamp, the shadow of the alligator swimming, taking its prey to a safe place for storage. A shudder runs through the company, fear comes back like illness.
“Go on! Go on!”
“But you must save him!”
“No one can be saved if they are afraid. Go on!”
This truth comes to you with a harsh clarity. You are not their keeper, only their guide. You could drive back the guards from them in the cavern, because the guards were trying to exceed their powers. But the alligator has his terrible authority here, and only courage can defeat it. Courage is the first of all the virtues, the mother of them all. Without it, none of the other virtues can come into existence. Cowards cannot love, or give. They can save no one, least of all themselves, and no one can save them.
The company moves forward again, less certainly, its newly growing courage almost broken.
“He was taken because he was afraid. Go on. Think how far we’ve come, how much you’ve endured!”
And slowly the swamp water grows shallower, ankle deep, becomes no more than soft mud. The trees thin out, the ground slopes upward, climbs steadily. There is soft grass, almost a hint of moonlight in the grey sky.
“We are nearly there!”
“Not yet. But soon”.
The panther going ahead, tail swaying like a pennon, her body tireless. Until on a level plateau of turf she halts, sits like an Egyptian statue.
“Here” she tells you. “Let them rest here”.
They lie down where they stand, almost falling, stretching out and sleeping in one movement. You too, falling into a dreamless sleep, a well of darkness, as if you were wrapped in black velvet. It seems only a moment before the panther is waking you –
“Up! Get up! Look!”
There is nothing to see. Only the darkness, the sleeping shapes of the company. Until somewhere ahead you see a lightening of the dark, a golden brightness growing, flames of gold, of crimson, and like a curtain rising the darkness becomes sapphire blue, blazing, staggering in its glory. A blue sky, sunrise! After God knows how long. Being bathed in light. Standing, staring, overwhelmed. Wanting to call the others, cry “Look! The sun! The sky! Paradise!” But no sound comes. And it is not yet Paradise. Only the morning.
And there, to the right, stark and shocking in its blackness, the iron hilt of the Bridge, the Sword Bridge that you and all your company must cross. The blade is hidden in the mist, just as it was that last time you saw it. But there is no need to see the blade. The hilt is frightening enough. A leaning tower of Pisa made of black iron. Who could have conceived its strength of horror? Who forged it? Set it there as a threat, a barrier? God? Satan? The two of them together?
“Wake everyone,” the panther orders. “Quickly. We have a day’s journey to reach the bridge, and they’ll not want to cross it in the dark”.
They’ll not dare to cross it in light or dark, reason tells you. They’ve come so far, and all to be halted here by this last barrier. If it is the last. And you too. Will you dare to cross it, balance on the razors’s edge of the blade? Above what?
“Above hell fire” the panther says. “Its no small thing to cross it safely”.
The company is waking, stirring. How can you tell them what they have to do? How can you strengthen their courage when your own is running thin as water?
“You’ll manage” the panther tells you. “The last time you were here, you came by a different way. The route that brings you here is what matters”.
The company stares at the unfamiliar sky, the sun rising in splendour. Someone points at the black iron shaft of the bridge, exclaims in wonder. “What is it? Are we to go there?”
“Yes. Up everyone, march! Let’s go!”
It takes all day. The mist clears from the blade, it glitters in the sun, beautiful, terrible. Greater and greater against the blue of the sky, a vast arch of steel springing from its black iron column, its far end still hidden.
Midday. Rolling grasslands. Afternoon. Evening. The shadow of the bridge growing longer, the iron column nearer, its gigantic menace dominating everything. Until you reach it, miniature figures in the evening stillness, the sun not much above the western horizon, far beyond the bridge.
“Climb first” the panther, orders you. “Show them it can be done”.
The thought of it, the fear of this moment, has been a weight on your heart all day. Now it’s here. Setting your hands and feet to the column. But that’s easy enough. Up, up, almost a stairway, iron steps, except for the height above the ground. Don’t look down. But you must, to encourage the company to follow. Their figures have grown tiny, far below. White dots of faces staring upwards. No one moving to follow.
Beckon them. Wave. No hand lifts in answer. Going higher, higher, and the iron steps are coming to an end; the blade is there, its edge upwards to the pale sky. It’s not possible to set foot on it.
“Go on” a voice whispers. “Trust”. But the moment you place your foot on the blade’s edge, put your weight on it, it will slice your flesh to the bone. “Go on! Trust!” the panther’s voice whispering, although the panther is far below on the ground, scarcely visible. One foot stretching out, touching. “Quick! Before you become afraid!”
Stepping onto the blade, expecting pain, and then the horror of falling. But there is none. It is like walking on a pathway, gently rising one step after the other, quicker, almost running, floating, high onto the curve of the bridge. Looking down to wave to the panther, the company – but they are no longer visible. What lies below is an enormous darkness, the earth split by a black horror of emptiness, seemingly bottomless until far, far down in its depths there is the glow of flames, and a gust of sulphur stench rises, catches your throat, dizzying, dreadful.
“Come back” the panther’s voice is whispering. “They are afraid. You must encourage them”.
They need more than encouragement. They need to be dragged, driven, cajoled. Some refuse even to begin the climb. “But you saw me go up? You saw how easy it is?”
Nothing serves. Even when they see others climbing. And then the blade. “No! Never!” You have to stand on it, almost drag them with you, half carry them. And the ones still on the ground, sullenly deaf to all pleading, urging. “We’re well enough here. We’ll sleep soon. In the morning we’ll think of it again”.
“But I can’t stay with you. I have to show the others where to go, beyond the bridge”
“Then leave us. How do we know what’s on the other side? It may be more deserts, anything. We’ve come far enough”.
You have to leave them. The ones already on the bridge need you, need your encouragement before they dare to go on. What will happen to these, still here on the ground? Will they be safe?
“Oh safe enough”, the panther’s voice is saying, “you’ll have to come back for them, but not for a long while. Come up to the blade again”.
Telling the ones up there to go on boldly, not to look down, to let their feet float along the sword’s edge, scarcely touching it. The sun on the horizon, the sky darkening in the East, and then the swift blaze of sunset, a flare of gold, and on the far side, still in the light the sabre tip of the bridge touches the ground. Grass. Wild flowers like small blue and white and yellow stars. A rivulet of clear water. Trees. The warmth of a summer evening. The travellers lying down in the grass, talking, laughing, happy with relief.
“Can I go back for the others?”
“No. The far side of the bridge is already dark”.
Here the evening lingers, fades into a starlit night. Into sleeping. To wake in a new dawn. The countryside is like parkland. Great trees, grass, flowers. And a path clear and easy, leading towards the west. An atmosphere of gaiety, of bravery among the companions.
“Are we arrived? Is this paradise?” “Not yet. Not quite”. A touch of irony in the panther’s voice, her whisper?
“Is there more to come?”
The path leading among the trees, the trees becoming a forest, oak and beech, ash and sycamore, cathedral arches of great branches high over the path. Some of the companions singing, laughing with the joy of conquest, of dangers overcome.
“And the ones we’ve left behind?” “They can follow whenever they want to. Or stay there”.
“But the one devoured in the swamp – ”
“He too will have another chance”.
“He’s not dead?”
“Nothing ever dies. The alligator will surrender him one day. You will have to see to it that it does”.
“You must find out. He was put into your care, like all of them”.
“But why? Who am I to care for anyone?”
“If you don’t who will? Is it all to be left to someone else?”
“Of course not. No. But I’m not fit to care for them”.
“You’ll have to do your best. We’re nearly at the end”.
“What is the end?”
The path through the forest climbing. The air crisp as champagne. There are birds now among the trees, and small animals. A wild boar goes crashing through the undergrowth, startled by the company. The forest gives way to scattered trees, silver birches, their long, thin branches stirring like the long hair of dancers, bright in the morning sun. Alpine meadows, lifting towards a mountain peak. The path still marked in the grass, winding among grey boulders. Up and up.
“Where are we going? Where does this path lead?” A quietness falling on the company, a sense of – not quite foreboding, but solemnity, as if something lies ahead that demands quietness.
A stream is running beside the path, bright and clear over flat stones. Very young and no more than a long step from side to side of it, and swiftly narrowing, until in a few more minutes of climbing it is no more than a thread of water spilling over an edge of rock. And there, standing on the rock by the miniature waterfall, is a golden drinking bowl, shining in the sun.
“It is the Grail,” the panther says. “Such a small cup to feed mankind”.
“Are we to drink from it?” Whispering. Not daring to believe.
“Unless you do, all your journey is wasted”.
“But the Grail is only a story”.
“All that you have endured so far is only a story. Your whole life. Your journey here. What else can it be but a story?”
Taking the cup in both hands. How heavy it is, for so small a thing. Look into it, into its shining hollow. See pictures there. A small man walking among companions, men and women. Listening to him, hanging on his words. A woman kneeling by his feet, washing them with her tears, drying them with her long hair, copper gold in the firelight. The man riding into a city, the crowd shouting Hail to the King, throwing down their clothes in the roadway for him to ride over, scattering green branches under the donkey’s hooves. The donkey’s eyes patient, tragic, the man silent as he lifts his hand to the crowd, to the women, to the children.
“Hail to David’s son!”
A courtyard, guards lounging by a fire, gossiping. The man a prisoner. Men shouting at him, pulling at his thin beard, spitting in his face. The trial. The man standing small and alone beside the judge. Yells of hatred. Kill him. Crucify him. And the man carrying his cross, staggering, falling, his back a mass of blood. Hanging on the cross between two other men, twisting his body in agony, blood running from his hands and feet, his head torn by its crown of thorns. Lying in white linen in the stone tomb, carved out of rock. And light blazing, falling from the air, filling the tomb with unendurable brightness as he lifts himself from his body, becomes only brightness, majesty.
All this in the hollow of the golden cup.
“Fill it from the stream. Drink”.
Holding it under the thread of crystal water. Almost drinking, and then, instead, holding it out to one of the company, to each in turn. Then your own turn last. The water sweet as wine, sharp as wine. All the coolness in the world contained in it, all the warmth. All the comfort.
“We must climb further,” the panther says. Another hour.
“Can we not rest here, beside the Grail? Drink again?
“No. There is one more trial”.
An hour’s climb. Snow on the rocks, on the grass. But clean and white, pure, beautiful. Small pools of shallow water. Flowers like jewels half hidden in the carpet of soft, springing turf. Then the mountain growing steeper, up to a rim of bare rock, a ridge that curves away, to left and right, as if enclosing a hollow. Climbing becomes difficult. Scrambling up to the ridge. And over. And staying shocked into stillness. The promised hollow is there, deep, a perfect circle – and filled with a lake of fire. It glows and burns, throws up heat that strikes like a furnace against the staring faces. The surface breaks, throws up long flames, golden and threatening.
“You must throw yourselves in,” the panther says. “You first”.
“In – to that?”
“Yes. Stand straight. There on that small, flat ledge”.
“But – this is madness!”
“Yes. Go on. Dive in”.
Standing on the ledge, heart filled with horror, lifting your arms above your head, leaning forward into the furnace blast of the flames, falling, diving, eyes closed in terror. And there is no burning, no searing of skin and flesh. Only the warm, sweet embrace of water, depth on depth, and up again, climbing, springing out of the lake, all that ever was of your sorrows, gone, burned away, all fears, all ignorance. Mind and body new as the morning, clear as starlight. Urging your companions in, let yourselves fall, dive, no matter how, go on, go on! Until each one has bathed in the fire, is reborn in beauty. Each body has become golden fire
Laughing in joy, in ecstasy, golden bodies in the golden light.
“You are free,” the panther says. “Free to enter Paradise. Unless – ”
“Unless what?” “Unless you choose to go back again. Find the others we had to leave behind. Remember?”
“Of course I remember” –
But it is hard to remember anything. “Must I?”
“There is no must. Choose, choose what you want to do”.
“I leave you now”. And the sleek blackness of her body fades shimmers in the sunlight, becomes a shadow that vanishes, leaving only a last echo, “Choose”.
And if I choose to go back, will I be able to return here one day, and enter Paradise?
At the very end of all things, yes.
When I do, what will it be like?
Ah! What a question! What will it be like? If I tried to describe a great fire, the fire of the sun in heaven, and told you it was like a candle flame, only greater, would I have helped you much?
What can I liken Paradise to? If I were to say, it is like falling in love, only much, much more, does that help a little?
A little. But “religious” people talk so easily about love.
I know. Too easily. You have bathed in the Lake of Fire. That is love. Your trust in diving into it, that was a frail beginning of love. The fire receiving you, cleansing you, purifying you – that was love. But still only it’s beginning. Look, I will show you a small, small detail of Paradise.
And at that the panther turns into a blaze of gold – all gold, all fire, yet still a panther, made of fire. Come to me, the panther says, love me, enter me – be one with me. And you are one with the panther, entering into the flame that is its heart. You know all the panther knows, all that every panther has ever been. Its hunting, and its loving, the fierce sharpness of its claws, its coiled waiting, its lithe hunger and its springing – the taste of blood.
But this is not love! This is terrible; I feel the deer’s terror!
And the panther changes, becomes a golden deer, gentle, fearful And you with it, grazing on sweet grass.
In Paradise one knows all things, is one with all things.
But the terror? The cruelty of the kill. Are they still there?
Only the knowledge of them, to turn away from them to love.
And the deer and the panther are separate creatures; gentle together, and then one creature, their flames joined into a golden mist.
Do you understand this? No. Maybe a little.
Listen. Do you hear my music? The music of a panther’s hunting? Of all the hunting creatures that ever were?
The sound of it stops the heart with sweetness, sadness. A horn, crying in the woodland, far away. And out of the woods a lady coming, stepping lightly, holding two leopards on either side of her, by their silver collars. A boy behind her, all in green, sounding the horn again.
And that is Paradise? In the wood?
Oh, a little of it. Paradise contains all good things. And there is the sea, blue as the sky, silken calm, and a curved embrace of cliff, and yellow sand – two lovers walking at the very edge of the sea, naked, arms twined round one another’s waists.
But where is God? Are they Adam and Eve?
If you like. Or you and –
Me and who?
Why, God, who else?
How else? Did you never read the Song of Songs?
Why yes, years ago.
And do you not know what love is? Love is ecstasy, passion without shame.
I always thought of harps and angels, thrones and powers. A man and a woman on a beach? A girl? A boy? But which is God?
It depends on you. Which do you want God to be? God is all things, all that can be. Even in Hell He is there as Mercy – you saw Him hanging on the beam, offering forgiveness. His forgiveness is the agony of the damned because they refuse it, cling to evil like a burning coat they will not throw off to receive Him in nakedness.
He is the stones and thorns of Purgatory that bless the feet of the penitent with bloody wounds. He is the Lake of Fire. He is the Grail. He is in the wind that carries the albatross above the sea. He is in the scent of spring and summer. He is in the snow.
I should be ashamed to look on Him. On Her.
The sparrows are not ashamed. Why should you be? Do they not fight and squabble in the bushes, make careless love? But they too become candle flames to lose themselves in His Fire. He is in the violet, and the oak wood. He is in the hurricane, and the soft south wind. He is in the slow progress of the glaciers, and among the palm trees.
You see the unicorn there at the edge of the wood, beside the Lady of the animals? White and beautiful, with her single onyx horn and her golden collar. She is God’s symbol, fantasy, beauty, fairytale.
I always thought of Him as an old man with a beard – very stern, unforgiving.
How can you think that when you have seen His Mercy? Have you not seen, even in your own world, all that He has forgiven? It is not God who demands punishments, but man. Punish this one, the child abuser! Punish that one, the murderer! And that thief and that whore, that vagabond! I tell you, if man were God, not many men or women would be left alive!
Oh panther, I understand nothing, know nothing; have learned nothing in all these years. How can I learn?
Open your heart. Tear it open with your hands. Offer its blood to all who come. Hang on that beam with Him. There is no other way to learn.
And then – then at last, Paradise? The music and the burning love?
Yes! Yes! You see? You have begun to learn. How can a heart know love that has not known suffering? Not suffering for self, but for others. What heart can know anything that has not been a victim?
Tell me about the music.
That too comes from suffering. You know the story of the little reed in the corner of the lake who longed to know God?
Tell me again.
How the angle came and plucked it from the mud, and how it cried out in agony. That was the beginning of its music. And the angel took a knife of gold and silver, and drew out the reed’s heart, until it sang so piteously in its pain that all Heaven heard it. Then the notches, for the angel’s fingers and the angel’s mouth – how cruel angels are that have never been simple men and women! But how skilful with their knives, as this angel was with the little reed –
Holy holy holy, the angel played on it, Lord God on High! The notes of the small flute rising up into the blue of Paradise.
You too, you have music in you – beautiful music that needs only the knife – the angel’s knife of sorrow and pain and ecstasy to bring it out in its crystal purity. You could say that you – and every human spirit – you are music, waiting to be played, to sing, to join in the Divine Symphony – to be part of it, one with it.
Am I to tell these things to people?
If they’ll listen. Not many will.
It is too like a fairy story –
Perhaps. All the real fairy stories are reflections of His Truth.
But what shall I say? That I have seen these things with my own eyes? They’ll call me a madman.
Would you care so much if they did? The panther smiling her golden, burning smile. Tell them they happened to a friend.
“I knew a man” you can say – you have a good precedent for saying such a thing – “who was lifted up into the first heaven – I know not in what body it happened to him, but all these things he saw with his living eyes”. Tell them that. At least it won’t be you they call mad, only your imaginary friend.
Only the first heaven? Are there more?
Why yes, of course! A second and a third, even up to a seventh. But let the first be enough for you, at least for now.