Friday 29 July 2022

Saints, Then and Now

In this piece I am using the word saints simply to mean individuals who are serious about leading the spiritual life. I do not refer to those who might be considered perfected in holiness but those who, like myself and I presume anyone reading this blog, are souls walking the path to God who regard that path as the true meaning and purpose of life but who have some way to go before reaching its end. So, really just believers but true and sincere believers. Disciples or aspiring, but certainly not realised, saints in the more conventional use of the word.

There have been times in human history when religious practice demanded great feats of asceticism and devotion. In ancient India the rishis performed prodigious feats of tapas which were harsh spiritual practices of austerity and penance that deprived both body and mind of any worldly comfort. The early Christian martyrs gave up everything for their faith, up to and including their lives. In the context of the times this may have been necessary. Life was much more physical then and sacrifice was therefore more focused on the physical and material. Spiritual growth and discipline always involve sacrifice of some sort. It is the renunciation of the worldly part of our nature in order to allow the spiritual to come through. Just because this can be taken too far and seen as important in itself does not mean it is not necessary to some degree.

These times are not like those of the past. The martyrs and the ancient yogis in their different ways suffered and were tested physically. I once met a man in the jungle in India who had remained standing for 20 years. He had a bar to lean on but he never sat or lay down. I found this impressive but pointless. I hope he benefited in some way but it's hard to see how. In 7th century Northumbria St Cuthbert would wade out into the bitterly cold North Sea every night until the water reached up to his neck. There he would chant hymns to God until dawn. In earlier times this may have been a way of conquering the worldly nature for a heroic temperament but now the battle has moved to the mind. That is not to say the battle was not always focused in the mind but it may be that the mind could be overcome by overcoming the body in those days. That is not the case now which is not to say we should not be abstemious in our habits and behaviour. But we need not go to extremes.

Earlier times also saw mystics and seekers of God engage in prayer and meditation for very long periods. This again was a way of conquering the worldly nature and attuning the soul to higher things but I don't believe it is necessary or even desirable nowadays. Perhaps on a retreat but not as a way of living. The present time is just so materialistic, meaning both the mainstream attitude to it and the actual environment itself, that living in this way is not really possible. We should try to keep God in mind as a subliminal presence at all times but for those of us living in the world full and complete focus during all waking hours is not really possible.

Nonetheless, we are being tested and we are being asked to perform feats of mental endurance. The test is psychological in nature and it is a matter of discernment. The endurance is in resisting the extreme spiritual evil of the present time. We are bombarded with anti-spiritual messages from every side but we have to find the mental and spiritual resilience within to counter this. We may have some help from outside, from scripture, from tradition, from religion, but these on their own will not be sufficient. We cannot rely on them alone because the world is such that it can co-opt them to its side. Not really, of course, but it can put up a good impression of having done so which may well deceive us unless we are alive to the truth within. Outer structures can help but they need positive reinforcement from our own inner connection to God so that the truth within them can grow and blossom in our hearts as it should. 

Think of religion as a musical score. To make the music in that score audible we have to learn how to read music and also how to play an instrument. The musician needs the score but he also needs to know how to play. This is the balance we require now between outer and inner, between tradition and personal awareness. Of course, a good musician goes beyond just reproducing the notes to make the music come properly alive. This is what the saint is trying to do with the soul.

Saturday 23 July 2022

A Body of Slag

 Bruce Charlton recently pointed me towards an article by the philosopher Jeremy Naydler in which he describes what he calls the emergence of the Eighth Sphere. This is based on an idea of Rudolf Steiner's concerning the evolution of the Earth. The details are complicated but for our purposes here one just needs to know that, according to Steiner and other esotericists too for that matter, our planet has descended from a pure spiritual state to ever denser forms in which matter has 'hardened' until we have arrived where we are now. This all accompanies, indeed it facilitates, the evolution of consciousness which gradually separates out from unconscious oneness with the whole to a more individual form before returning to the source but with the fruits of the journey which would include freedom and creative ability. 

This is broadly in line with what I believe though my belief takes a simpler form. The whole spiritual path concerns re-ascending from matter to spirit though life first had to be brought to the point at which it could do this of its own volition and in full consciousness which means the descent to matter was all part of the evolutionary journey. There would have been times in the distant past when a form of materialism was actually conducive to overall evolution. One can see the mystery of sex as part of that. These times, needless to say, are long past and any return to those ways is atavistic in the extreme.

Now is the time of greatest immersion in matter. It's the nadir of the arc which means reascending is critical. However, it is not inevitable. The reascent can take place either individually or collectively. It should take place on both levels but we can only control the former. This is now an extremely important time in the ongoing evolutionary cycle of the Earth. If enough people reject materialism and turn to the divine we, the human race and the planet as well, can begin to spiritualise ourselves. The environment will respond to that and change, becoming more rarified. On the other hand, if we, or enough of us, do not do that the descent will continue until in Naydler's words 'a "body of slag" will be cast off from the Earth as the latter transitions to a higher spiritual state". What this implies is a kind of split in planetary consciousness with those who are open to God ascending in one purified planetary environment while those who cling to their materialistic ways will descend to a more materialistic, denser environment that reflects their own consciousness. It is a parting of the ways. What matters here is not simply a matter of good and bad as we consider those qualities now. Selfishness is certainly part of it but it is also a materialistic attitude to life. Many who see themselves as upright decent citizens will descend if they remain closed to God. Some sinners will rise if they are sincerely open to God.

Think of human life as a stream moving towards a rock. Part of that stream will go to one side of the rock and continue on its way to the sea. The other part will go to the other side and enter a crack in the ground from where it will descend to a subterranean lake. The rock is becoming visible. We need to start getting ourselves in place so that we do not consign ourselves to the body of slag for note this. Nobody or nothing does this to us. Our own consciousness will determine our external environment.

Slag is the waste product that is separated out from metal ore when it is refined. It is a chilling description for human souls that don't make the grade but while God is love he is not sentimental. The essence of the human condition is that we are free. If we advance a small way towards God he will come a long way towards us but we have to make the initial approach. If we don't we cannot be forced. I would not compare the body of slag to hell, though it may be hellish, because I believe that there will be opportunities to rise again even from that state. But it will be much harder. Souls that find themselves there will be that much further separated from real goodness and truth. Everything will be heavier, darker, duller. The time is coming when the rejection of God will have profound consequences.

Wednesday 20 July 2022

In Praise of the Esoteric

 There's a fair amount of Libra in my birth chart - Mercury and Venus are both there as is Neptune. Maybe that's why I usually try to look at both sides of a question. With that in mind this post is going to be about the importance of esoteric understanding if one wants to make real spiritual progress. It is neither sufficient nor necessary for salvation but it is very helpful and, though the intellectual mind is not the key to unlocking the door of spiritual truth, it can certainly guide the key to the lock.

Faith and knowledge are often separated and regarded as almost in opposition but I see them as twins with each one both complementing and deepening the other. Without faith knowledge is dry and spiritually sterile. Without knowledge faith can be impotent and immature and rooted in ignorance. Ignorance is never good. It will likely lead to error and then becomes faith in what is false. What use is that?

Esoteric teachings are simply a guide to the higher aspects of the human being, where we have come from, where we should be going and how we get there from here. Then they describe the spiritual structure of the universe. They are, properly considered, the knowledge aspect of religion and so are a form of spiritual science. Like material science they can be abused but in themselves they are good because they are founded on truth though I would add the strict proviso that any teaching calling itself esoteric needs to be subjected to the rigour of intuition, common sense and cast in the light of the reality of Christ. If it conflicts with the latter, it can be rejected.

There may have been a time when knowledge of the higher worlds was relatively unimportant for the work we need to do in this world to grow and develop spiritually but now human beings have evolved their minds and the mind needs to be catered for. It must have food. If it does not have real knowledge it will have false knowledge and it will act according to that in ways that would not have been possible before as it has more agency. Therefore, you could say that esoteric understanding has become more important. A developing mind has to have something to know. 

Moreover, there is a God-given impulse in the mind pushing it towards growth. We need to understand. We are in fact obliged to understand and esoteric teachings provide some form of understanding. They are not perfect because we are still very limited beings but we are growing towards the light and esoteric teachings can be a kind of fertiliser that help us to grow. As long, that is, as they are balanced by growth in the spiritual and moral sense. I refer back to the previous post.

Monday 18 July 2022

The Temptation of the Esoteric

 Ancient mysteries, hidden secrets, the wisdom of the ancients. Whose imagination isn't stirred by the idea of arcane knowledge preserved from initiates of the distant past? The magic of Egypt, the mysticism of India, the occultism of Tibet can all be powerful drugs to the questing mind seeking to penetrate the veil between this world and the next. It's intoxicating stuff and there undoubtedly is a reality behind it all. It's not just dreams and fantasy. There is a real substance to it. But is it what spirituality is actually about, especially for us here and now in the modern West?

It's just a coincidence but esoteric and exotic do sound very similar. And it's not just the words that are alike. They both conjure up the sense of something fascinating and strange that can open up unsuspected new areas of experience. They can take you beyond the mundane and everyday and give you a feeling of superiority over ordinary people if you explore or even possess them. 

Wise teachers have always warned of the difference between magic and religion. The esoteric, even if it is spiritually focused, has much in common with magic in that it is to do with knowledge and power. It certainly appeals to those who hunger for these things and who may be motivated by that hunger. But I am always reminded of something the Masters said to me. Spiritual truth is simple but it is easy to get lost in philosophical speculations which lead nowhere. And not just philosophical speculations. Anything that is not inspired by the love of God is a spiritual sidetrack, and the esotericist is often a long way from simple faith and worship, using the word worship in what I regard as its proper sense which is loving God.

Everything changed with the advent of Christ. I appreciate this more and more as the world sinks further into spiritual darkness and Christ is neglected not just by the people but often by the churches that preach in his name  Before his time there were many forms of spirituality and they could open doors into the unknown for the qualified initiate. But they did not lead to Heaven. Those who go back to the past without fully accepting Christ are not revivifying ancient teachings that will give them access to the Mysteries. The spirit has departed from them. It was once present but is no longer and though you may be able to recreate a simulacrum of the once living and vital truth embodied by these spiritual forms, you will not find the living truth itself. That is now in Christ.

I don't know much about Freemasonry but I suspect this is why it is condemned by the Catholic Church. No doubt there is a kernel of esoteric wisdom behind its ceremonies and rituals, possibly passed down from ancient Egypt though it will have travelled a long way and perhaps been subject to the Chinese whispers effect. Nevertheless, I expect there is something there. But if Christ is not there, and as far as I can tell he isn't, that renders the whole enterprise suspect. Hidden truth without Christ is not truth. Moreover, in the case of Freemasonry, it has always been too concerned with building a New World Order. There is a definite whiff of the Tower of Babel about it.

I am not condemning the esoteric. We are called to knowledge and we should seek it out. That is our destiny and our spiritual duty. Greater knowledge will enable us to interact with both God and the universe on a deeper level. I myself have explored esoteric teachings for over 40 years as is easy nowadays when so much has been published and made widely available to anyone who can read. But I do say that if we do this we should always do it under the banner of Christ or we risk falling into illusion and worse. 

Wednesday 13 July 2022

Raphael and the Renaissance

 I have a book which was first published in 1932 called Through the Eyes of the Masters. It was written by David Anrias which is the pen name of someone called Brian Ross, and it purports to be telepathically received communications from the Theosophical Masters on various subjects. It's an intriguing book but I'm not convinced any more than I am convinced by the Theosophical Masters themselves though I do find Theosophical teachings interesting albeit with quite a few reservations, the chief of which, of course, being the diminishment of Christ. 

Anyway, one of these communications is from someone known as the Venetian Master who, we are told, was the painter Paolo Veronese in a previous life. Maybe. But he says something about Renaissance art which came to my mind recently and I will quote it here. He says that "the religious element was imposed upon the consciousness of the painter by extraneous conditions rather than arising from real spiritual experience. Such religious scenes and emotions as he attempted to convey were usually conventional and stereotyped though exquisitely painted in the tradition of the period."

I was reminded of this because on Monday I went to the National Gallery in London to see the current exhibition on Raphael. It was far too hot for such an escapade which involved me walking a couple of miles in the midday sun with temperatures of 31 degrees (87 in old money) but that's another story. The point I wish to make is that I found the paintings in the exhibition, against expectations, rather dull. I went through the whole exhibition in about 15 minutes before cheering myself up with some 17th century Dutch landscapes in the main gallery which were more to my taste.

What's the problem here? For me it is captured by the quote above. The paintings were mostly of religious subjects and they were indeed exquisitely painted. But I found them quite uninspiring to look at. The faces were bland and conventional and the general depiction of the subject had no depth or feeling. I was surprised because I thought I liked Raphael. There was a reproduction of The School of Athens there and that was impressive but the great majority of pictures had nothing to say (in my view). I'm sure they are technical masterpieces but that is not enough if they don't use that mastery to offer something more, and for me they just don't.

When I was young and more interested in art than I am now I appreciated the pre-Raphaelites. I couldn't remember what it was they didn't like about Raphael so I looked it up. Wikipedia tells me that they believed the "classical poses and elegant compositions of Raphael were a corrupting influence" on art. I suppose this means he favoured style over substance and that is more or less what I felt on my visit.

I may just have been in the wrong frame of mind. It was very hot and shortly before my visit I had eaten a stale croissant washed down with an over-priced cup of bad coffee. But that's not all there was to it. I enjoyed the Dutch landscapes and still lifes (lives?) I saw afterwards. These seemed to have a lot more depth to them and really capture something of the inner truth of the subject. Raphael's art has a certain serenity and is undoubtedly exquisite but that word implies a surface level bland beauty and that is what I saw in his work. Perhaps the problem was the lack of variety when so many are seen together and he might be better appreciated if one just saw one or two paintings in which case the smooth perfection might not pall.

The Madonna of the Pinks. A beautiful painting but could it also be rather bland?

The Renaissance was a restoration of Classical humanism. When it treated religious subjects it played down the hieratic quality you find in medieval art. It brought them closer to the everyday human but by removing distance it also lost the sense of the sacred. I don't feel about Raphael as I feel about Leonardo but nor do I feel his painting has any of the spiritual intensity of, say, Albrecht Durer to take an almost exact contemporary, and as far as the pictures in the exhibition go he well illustrates the spiritual loss incurred by Renaissance humanism.

Saturday 9 July 2022

Watch and Pray

 I haven't posted much recently because I've been working on a book but even if I hadn't been occupied with that I would not have had a great deal to say at the moment. The world continues its plunge downwards even if most people don't seem to notice that. Not only is spiritual reality denied but even the truths of nature are rejected nowadays what with all the absurd reconfiguring of the simple and basic fact of man and woman. We are messing with the foundation of life and it can only end badly. Then there is the creeping totalitarianism which also seems to be ignored by most. Strange times.

But setting that aside for the moment, the current period seems to be a betwixt and between one. It's as though the demonic powers are gathering their forces for another assault on humanity but holding back for the time being. We can see how preparations here and there are underway but now is a relatively calm period. I suspect that will not be the case for much longer.

This is where Jesus's advice to watch and pray becomes important. We must keep a spiritual weather eye open, look out for the signs, but also retain a certain distance so we don't get too caught up in the storm to come. We can't avoid it but must try not to be swept away by it. I understand those who think that believing that the battle in this world cannot be won is just shouldering arms and ceding the ground to the enemy, but the battle is for souls not territory. Certainly, we should try to make outer conditions as healthy as possible for souls and proclaim both the truth of God and the lies of this world, but part of the test of being alive now is to trust in God when the outer world rejects him. This is the examination of your spiritual mettle. The wind is blowing hard in your face but you must continue to climb that hill.

The world cannot be made better at this time. That doesn't mean we should let evil take its course. We must speak out against it always. But we should look to effect inner transformation not outer change. Humanity is too far gone in evil to turn back collectively now and yet many individuals may do just that. It's actually possible that every individual may do that. (Very unlikely but not completely impossible.) Such is the strange paradox of spiritual life. As the world descends into darkness more people may wake up and I believe that those who are to some degree already awake have to hold themselves in readiness to assist their fellow men and women, so many of whom have been denied basic religious education. I am using the world religious in a broad sense. The time is past for insisting that this or that outer form of religion is required. All that is required is repentance and awakening to the truth and reality of Christ. All the churches are compromised, both intellectually and spiritually, and now salvation has to come from within yourself. Not through yourself because it comes through the grace of God but within yourself. You have to do the work and not rely on any outer human authority.

Monday 4 July 2022

Spiritual Error

 Spiritual errors are usually not outright lies but distortions of truth. That way they seem more plausible and can be more effective in taking one off the straight and narrow path. Two such modern errors or heresies, if you can call them that since they are not really Christian heresies even if they have infected Christianity, are almost opposites. One is that the love of one's neighbour is the pre-eminent mark of a spiritual person. This could only be believed in a materialistic world. The pre-eminent spiritual quality is love of God. That should go without saying since Jesus said it. Love of one's neighbour comes after love of God and, properly speaking, is dependent on it which tells us that love of the neighbour means acting for his spiritual good, doing what will bring him closer to God. Love always means working for spiritual good. If you think you love your neighbour but use that supposed love to solidify him in his sins you are not responding to real love at all but to some imagined imitation of it.

This inversion of the true spiritual order has come about, as so many errors do, because one aspect of spiritual teaching has been emphasised at the expense of others which are neglected. The story of the Good Samaritan has been taken as the central pillar of Christianity with more important teachings such as for instance the love of God, the recognition of Christ, the rejection of the world and the fact of good and evil as spiritual realities downgraded. But spiritual understanding is dependent on maintaining the correct balance between truth and love, the vertical connection to God and the horizontal radiation to Man, and note that the horizontal radiation can only be real when the vertical connection is true. Otherwise what you do is not radiate but project and what you project is not spiritual love which wholly depends on the spiritual connection being true since that is its source.

The second error of the two I referred to above is the elevation of abstract spirit as the supreme reality and spiritual goal. This idea can be seen in Buddhism, some forms of Hinduism and even elements of Green philosophy. But it misses the point that God looked at creation and saw that it was good. Why create just to throw the fruits of that away at the end? Creation must clearly add something new and better to the mix and this was demonstrated by Jesus at the Ascension. He didn't just disappear as a spirit. His body was resurrected and then ascended into heaven as Christian teaching says ours will be. Now, this doesn't mean we will all rise from our graves in our old bodies. The body will be transformed but we will still have a body as indeed we must if we have an individual self. Can you imagine a self without a form in which it appears? No body means no beauty. It means no love for love requires appearance if it has any blood in it. Maybe it is creation that gives blood to spirit as in the loving warmth of life.

Abandoning materialism for spiritual belief is a step forward but it can also be a step away if one is not careful. Spiritual error lies waiting for all of us when we set out on the path to God but it is also a good marker of right motivation. We may believe what it suits us to believe. On the other hand, if our heart is true what we believe in our head is of secondary importance.