©2013 By Bob Litton
“But the mind is still haunted by its old unconscious ways; it broods on lost authorities; and the yearning, the deep and hollowing yearning for divine volition and service is with us still.”
— Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness
in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, p. 313.
Back in 1990-92, I regularly attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings — many of them — in Dallas, Texas. It was a rewarding experience for me, since I was able to defeat my dependence on beer and, more importantly, discover true spirituality.
Let me dispose of the alcohol matter first. Comparing my drinking problem with others in our fairly large AA group, I concluded that there must be more than one kind or degree of alcoholism. Particularly, a few of the members had had a very rough time both before finding AA and after joining the group. One worried-looking fellow in his thirties used to sit in the group rubbing his six-months sobriety chip as though it were a talisman. Also, two lovely, young female members killed themselves — one by binge-drinking on a gallon of gin and the other by committing suicide (I never heard by what means). One of the many sayings in AA declares that the alcoholic who does not seek help can expect one of three fates: prison, insanity, or death due to alcohol. Fortunately for me, my drinking problem had not reached the stage of chemical addiction. I was able to stop drinking beer after a few months. But, I continued going to the meetings because of the spiritual atmosphere.
Something magical (or mystical) happens in a room filled with about twenty people sitting in a circle, where each has up to five minutes to relate his or her own experience of, or attitude toward, a single topic usually introduced by the group leader. Sometimes the topic concerns one of the Twelve Steps; sometimes it is a problem about personal growth that one of the members has; but in every case the topic must involve alcohol, even if only tangentially. I discovered, through listening to those other persons, that at least five of them would say something that related to some troubled part within my own self. The proportion of twenty percent was so regular that it became predictable.
At the beginning of my association with AA, I was an agnostic and very much opposed to organized religion. But, the frequent mention by other members of “little miracles” and of their close relationship with some “higher power” — sometimes so close as to annoy them (“I wanted to say, ‘Get out of my face!'” remarked one lady) — caused me to surmise, These people are not faking it; their spirituality is actual.
During this time I was working for two temp agencies and studying poetry. One day during a lunch hour while I was on assignment at an insurance company, I was reading a book about the elements of a poem. The author quoted a line from a poem that she neglected to ascribe to any poet; she was using it as an example of simile. The line ran thus: “And music yearning like a god in pain…”. The word “yearning” struck a major chord within me, but I could not fathom why. It looked to me like something Percy Shelley might have written; I resolved to check out its source when I got home that night. I was unable to find it in any of Shelley’s poems, so I tried John Keats, and there it was in “Eve of St. Agnes”. The line’s environment surprised me because the poem appeared to me as more erotic than spiritual. Now that contrast seems prophetic.
At the same time, I was reading philosophy books. In some of them, I kept coming upon footnotes citing St. John of the Cross. Besides wondering how anybody had garnered a moniker like that, I became curious who this “John of the Cross” was and why he was cited so often in the philosophy texts I was reading. Eventually I found him: a 16th century Spanish Carmelite friar, mystic and poet. I read his Dark Night of the Soul , and, although I do not recommend it for its literary qualities, I did recognize a few aspects of myself in John’s words. He wrote of the contemplative’s first recognition of his depravity in a very graphic image: a prisoner in a dark dungeon watching as the grime is wiped off the single window in his cell and perceiving all the motes floating about: those motes are his sins, which were invisible to him before God’s grace gave him light. In another passage, John compared God’s gradual withdrawal of His “favors” to the substance a mother smears on her nipples in order to wean her child.
I do not intend to get into the question of God’s existence or non-existence here, but I have to continue a while with some God-talk, for at that time I was willing to return to my adolescent concept of the man-like Judeo-Christian God. Some AA members had remarked that God speaks through other people. Based on my experience as related above (about how at least five members in any meeting would say something that touched on one of my personal issues), I thought their claim was quite plausible. My only question about it was: Why not books or animals or Nature in general? It seemed to me that some books I had read recently contained paragraphs, or even just phrases, that appeared directed at me. Also, I was conscious of some very strange and powerful sensations during my solitary walks along the shore of a nearby lake and my observations of various birds, fish and squirrels along the way.
One bright, crisp October morning, as I approached my pickup truck, that was parked in the lot behind the apartment I shared with my brother, I heard a bird singing clearly and lyrically in a small oak tree in front of the truck. I paused, one hand poised on the truck door’s handle, and pondered the moment’s significance. I could not see the bird, which I deduced must be a mockingbird, but I tried to interpret its notes. After about five minutes, I gave up and quietly uttered, “Sorry, God, I guess I’m just not there yet.”
The next morning, a Sunday, I lay in bed, not eager to rise, and lifted a New Yorker magazine off the little table beside my bed. After scanning the cartoons, I tried one of the poems. It was by Swedish poet Lars Gustafsson, translated by Yvonne L. Sandstroem, about a recently deceased 86-year-old Mexican woman who had carried a dead fetus around in her womb for sixty years. Most of the poem is a comparison of the Mexican woman’s unborn child and the “child” within the aging poet. However, the poet’s meditation is abruptly interrupted by a mockingbird in an oak tree:
…..Mockingbird, what do you want?
You have so many voices, and I don’t know
which one of them to take seriously.
The scornful sometimes, the complaining sometimes—
then there’s a kind of clucking
on certain days in early spring,
when dampness still clings to the moss on the oaks,
as if you didn’t quite want to speak out.
Mockingbird in the green oak tree!
What’s the secret you sit there trying to swallow?
Now, dear readers, you can interpret that episode anyway you like, but the way I interpreted it is that God was saying to me, “Bob, don’t expect me to speak to you through a bird’s songs. They are just copied notes. And, even if I did use that magician’s trick, nobody would believe you if you related the incident to them. I have more natural ways of getting your attention, as through your fellow AA sufferers and even this magazine, albeit I will acknowledge that the poem here borders on the magical. Just settle for the mystical, okay?”
Following that incident, I encountered many “mystical favors” (also called “graces” or “consolations”), a few of which I related to friends, who heard my anecdotes with only tepid interest and doubtful glances. One such “favor” bears mentioning here, for it was not only valid and profound but also similar to one experienced by a woman I met about that time; it is also discussed by St. John of the Cross and, in more detail, by Bernard of Clairvaux. It is the spiritual “fragrance” or “perfume” or “aroma”. Even before I started taking seriously the spirituality in AA, I had smelled a pleasing odor, which I can only compare, inadequately, to that of honeysuckle. I detected it in strange places, such as a concrete parking lot with no plants around nor any perfumed women; it did not match my own deodorant or shampoo either. The experience was brief, and I did not ponder it; rather, I gave it over as something indeterminable and unimportant. But, when I began my spiritual quest in AA and experienced it again, I took it very seriously and noted the references to it in John of the Cross’s and Bernard of Clairvaux’s writings. Bernard, in his On The Song of Songs, attributes the fragrance to the ointment and spices which various women applied to Jesus’ feet, head and body during his life and after his death; while I, unable to connect with either Jesus as Christ or with God the Father, associated what I smelled with the Holy Spirit, a presence with whom I could relate. I deemed the aroma was the fragrance of the Holy Spirit being exhaled from my soul into the outer air where it could be sensibly discernible and become a “lure” toward more spiritual seeking.
The Holy Spirit remains the only “Person” I fully acknowledge; for the Judeo-Christian God is too abstract and encumbered with paradoxes for me to know, much less love; and Jesus can be viewed and interpreted in too many ways, some of them contradictory, for me to accept him as totally real. Moreover, I have never seen how his “sacrifice” was necessary, for I cannot accept the paradox of a “just” and “loving” God demanding the execution of anybody, much less His own “son”. Nor can I imagine any “eternal life” as a desirable condition: oblivion is quite sufficient for me (if only I could have a brief while to savor the relief it offered).
Nonetheless, I continued my spiritual search — and profitably, too — within the Christian tradition, even though I allow that other religions have valid mystical traditions and practices . I studied many of the Western mystics, both medieval and modern; in fact, one might reasonably accuse me of studying mysticism to death. (There really is such a thing as “spiritual gluttony”.)
One of the major mystics toward whom I was attracted was Jan Van Ruysbroeck, a 14th century Flemish monk. Although there were several spiritual insights that I gained from reading Ruysbroeck’s treatises, the one I value most is his classification of spiritual development into three stages: the active life, the yearning (or interior) life, and the contemplative life. The reason this classifying appealed to me was that it had elevated “yearning” from the status of a simple descriptive word to a developmental stage in spiritual growth; it had proven to be, for me at least, the objective toward which that “lure” I had hooked onto in Keats’ poem had brought me.
The Holy Spirit withdrew before I reached the third stage — the one beyond “active” and “yearning” — “the contemplative life”. But, to tell you the truth, I was not interested in becoming “one with God”: the anticipated goal of those monks and others heavily devoted to contemplation. Christian theology contains too many paradoxes and even contradictions for me to accept in toto. I was more in tune with the radical American Puritan theologian Roger Williams, who believed that each person should find his own deity free of pressure from corporate worship and rules; and with Pierre Abelard, the medieval French theologian and philosopher, who published Yes and No, a compilation of 200 problems he had found in the Bible which he urged Church leaders to study and correct. (Bernard of Clairvaux persecuted Abelard unmercifully for his honest effort, which is why I do not consider Bernard a “saint”.)
I decided I should not waste my time and emotional energy trying to correlate my spiritual yearning with any certain concept of God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s withdrawal had left me in what John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul”, and there was no promised date when I might exit from that condition. The complexity of all those theological questions was way above my head, and I was not going to waste my time trying to work my way through the religious maze. If the Holy Spirit wanted to impart some fresh insight to me, He knew where to find me. I would simply let Him do His thing, and I would do mine, but with an eye aimed toward being as honest, compassionate, and understanding as I could be. I am a spiritual seeker, not a religious joiner.
One item in this discourse remains to be dealt with: What is the Holy Spirit’s connection to the δαíμων? Well, recently I had occasion to read several of Plato’s dialogues and some articles about Socrates. I discovered that Socrates claimed to have a “δαíμων”: a spiritual guide that, while Socrates was in the midst of a mystical transport, would warn the philosopher when he was about to make a wrong move but did not advise him about what was the right move (See Plato’s Apology, 31d, in Loeb Classical Library). That information intrigued me: Was Socrates’ “δαíμων” the same as what the Christians call a “Guardian Angel” or even the “Holy Spirit”? I was certainly willing to welcome such a moral or ethical guide, free of theological gobbledygook, into my life, since I frequently am confronted with ambiguous situations and fear my own ambivalence.
And the spiritual quest will continue unto my dying day, of that much I am sure.