All I can say about this man is, "he is profoundly plugged in," and I'd sit at his side anytime anywhere!
This New Preface to “Behold the Spirit” by Alan Watt was added to the reprinting of the book in 1971. In it Watts explains his “evolutionary thought process” and eventual decision to leave the Anglican Church. His university Episcopal Chaplain position was a last attempt for him to embrace the “faith of his youth” and “work within the system.” Problem was, his passion and connection to the philosophies of the East and a robust Bohemian lifestyle eventually pushed him to move on in his spiritual trek.
When Behold the Spirit was reprinted (1971) Watts required this new preface be added to explain his own evolving journey. Enjoy!
Original printing - 1947
This book was written twenty-five years ago, during the experiment of trying to immerse myself in Christianity —to the extent of being a priest of the Anglican Communion, Episcopal Chaplain at Northwestern University, and an examining chaplain for candidates for holy orders in the Diocese of Chicago. Prior to this experiment, indeed since the age of fifteen, my outlook had been Buddhist rather than Christian even though I had been schooled in the heart of the Church of England and had learned a version of Christianity which was not that of this book. In adolescence I had rejected it, but as time went on the study of comparative religion and Christian mysticism suggested a way in which I might operate through the forms and in the terms of the official religion of Western culture. I did not want to be an eccentric outsider, and felt that Catholic Christianity might be taught and practiced as a form of that perennial philosophy which is the gold within the sectarian dross of every great religion.
I still believe that this experiment had validity, and I have consented to the republication of Behold the Spirit with the thought that it may prove useful to the t many Catholic and Protestant theologians who are now revolutionary enough to understand it. For it speaks to their condition in their own language—more so, perhaps, than my later theological essays, The Supreme Identity (1950), Myth and Ritual in Christianity (1953), and Beyond Theology (1964), which last represents my present way of thinking within this context.
Even twenty-five years ago this experiment had some success. I did not pursue it for the purely personal reason that my bohemian style of life did not fit well with the clerical stereotype, and because even then I was ill at ease with the commitment to spiritual imperialism which most Christians feel to be the sine qua non of being Christian, as if one could not be a true Christian without being a militant missionary. But then, and more than ever today, there were both clergy and laity who hungered for a mystical approach to Christianity, concerned with the non-verbal spiritual experience of the divine rather than mere doctrine and precept. Yet now, as then, the Church is still overwhelmingly didactic and verbose, both as it faces God and as it faces the world. Its liturgies consist almost entirely of telling God what to do and the people how to behave. By rationalizing the Mass and celebrating it in the vernacular instead of Latin, even the Roman Church has made the liturgy an occasion for filling one’s head with thoughts, aspirations, considerations and resolutions, so that it is almost impossible to use the Mass as a support for pure contemplation, free from discursive chatter in the skull.
Today, the idea of the mystical finds greater acceptance, both within and outside the Church, than in 1946. A vast and well-informed literature on the subject has made it clear that “mysticism” is not a collective term for such spookeries as levitation, astrology, telekinesis, and projection of the astral body. Theologians can no longer dismiss or distort the mystical teachings of either East or West without revealing plain lack of scholarship. Scientists—now familiar with field theory, ecological dynamics and the transactional nature of perception—can no longer see man as the independent observer of an alien and rigidly mechanical world of separate objects. The clearly mystical sensation of self-and-universe, or organism-and-environment, as a unified field or process seems to fit the facts. The sensation of man as an island-ego in a hostile, stupid or indifferent universe seems more of a dangerous hallucination.
At the same time it is less and less plausible to conceive God in the thought-graven image of a transcendental monarch modeled on the Pharaohs and Cyruses. But the dissolution of this idol need not leave us with no other alternative than the insipid humanism suggested by “death of God” and “religionless Christianity” theologians. The God of mystical experience may not be the ethically obstreperous and precisely defined autocrat beloved of religious authoritarians; but as an experience, not concept, as vividly real as indefinable, this God does not violate the intellectual conscience, the aesthetic imagination, or the religious intuition. A Christianity which is not basically mystical must become either a political ideology or a mindless fundamentalism. This is, indeed, already happening, and it is curious to note that, for lack of the mystical element, both trends fall back on the Bible as their basic inspiration—and it has always struck me that Biblical idolatry is one of the most depressing and sterile fixations of the religious mind.
We now know beyond doubt that large and widely scattered numbers of otherwise sane and sober people have had experiences of “cosmic consciousness” in which the sense of life becomes perfectly clear. The antagonisms of good and evil, life and death, being and nothing, self and other are felt as the poles or undulations of a single, eternal and harmonious energy—exuding a sense of joy and love. The feeling may be purely subjective and without reference to “external reality” [as if “external” could be independent of “internal”], but it comes upon us with the same startling independence of wishing and willing as a flash of lightning. Debates as to whether this vision is or is not “true” seem as pointless as asking whether my sensation of green is just the same as yours. But the vision is not pointless because, when seen, it is obviously the whole point of life and, often enough, it transforms one’s way of living.
In our inevitably clumsy attempts to describe this vision it often seems necessary to say that everything is God, that God alone is real, that a crumb is the whole universe, or that you and God are one. At the same time, the experience is somehow a grace: it is given and cannot be evoked by effort of will. In Behold the Spirit I was trying to show that the gift of the Incarnation, of God becoming man (virgin-born, without human effort), implied and fulfilled itself in this experience, and in this sense I quoted the saying of St. Athanasius that “God became man that man might become God.” But I was pussyfooting, as is always the way with theologians when they try to discuss the Christology of ordinary human beings as distinct from the Christology of Jesus. For the Church’s habitual assumption, having the force of dogma, is that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the only son of woman who was at the same time God.
This Godhood is extended to other people by “participation in the human nature of Jesus,” explained by the tortuous Greek notion that human nature is a “real universal” or “substance” in which we all share. When the person of God the Son assumed this nature, he assumed all our natures and became mankind, leaving, however, the person (or ego) of each man distinct and separate from his own divine person. In other words, God the Son was the person of the particular man Jesus. He assumed the nature, but not the person, of such particular men as Peter, Paul, John and the rest of us.
Looking back on this pussyfooting I find it somewhat less than a gospel—a tremendous proclamation of good news. I now find it easier to assume that Jesus was a man like ourselves who had a spontaneous (i.e., virgin-born) and overwhelming experience of cosmic consciousness in which it became completely clear to him that “I and the Father are one” and that “before Abraham was, I am.” But it was as tactless to say this in terms of Jewish theology as it still remains to say it in terms of Christian. Jesus had to hedge by identifying himself as the Son of Man, the Suffering Servant—or spiritual messiah—of Isaiah II. It would have been outrageous and criminal blasphemy to come right out and say, “I am God”— assuming the throne of the Cyrus of the universe. But, if we are to believe the Gospel of St. John, conviction got the better of tact—for in all those “I am” passages he came out with the simple truth of his experience and was crucified for blasphemy.
The Gospel was that “in my Father’s house are many mansions,” that his disciples would all be one even as he and the Father were one, and thus perform even greater works than he. It is not easy for the pious Christian to realize that Jesus was not an expert on the history of religion, and had probably never met anyone whose mystical vision was as deep as his own. The only religious language available to him was that of the legal and prophetic Hebrew scriptures which, with their image of God as the King-Father, do not easily lend themselves to a mystical interpretation. Jewish mystics—the Kabbalists and the Hasidim—have always had to read the scriptures as complex allegories in order to go beyond their literal sense. Therefore Jesus had difficulty in saying what he felt, not only because it was officially blasphemous, but also because it made no sense to say that he was consciously and personally ruling and causing every detail of the universe, and attending to all prayers from everywhere. Thus on the one hand he could say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and on the other, “Why do you call me good? There is none good but God.” But such problems do not arise for those whose image or non-image of God is not monarchical.
The Gospel must therefore be the communication of Jesus’ own experience of Godhood. Otherwise Christians put themselves in the absurd situation of reproaching themselves for not following the example of one who had the unique advantage of being God or, at the very least, “the Boss’s son.” It is thus that the “saving truth” of the Gospel appears, not as Jesus’ experience of Godhood, but as his punishment for proclaiming it, and that sanctity in the following of Christ is chiefly measured by the degree of guiltiness felt in failing to come up to his example. Christians dare not believe that, as St. John says, they have been given power “to become the sons of God,” remembering that the expression “sons of” means “of the nature of.” The dubious uniqueness of the monarchical religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) is that they over-stress the difference between Creator and creature and, by making virtues of feeling guilty and frightened, inculcate a very special terror of death—which Jesus saw as a source of life. Is it really such a profound theological paradox to be trying at once to “be not anxious” and to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”? To substitute the fear of God for the fear of the world is to exchange a finite terror for one that is infinite—for the terror of everlasting damnation. As an inheritor of the monarchical tradition, Jesus recognized this terror, for would not the Court of Heaven also have dungeons? But he saw the possibility of overcoming it in his and our realization of divine sonship—that is, in mystical experience. Lacking such experience, religion is only a futile straining to follow a way of life for which one has neither the power nor the grace, and there is no power in a merely theoretical grace which one has allegedly been given but does not feel.
From this point of view it would seem that the Church has rendered the Gospel ineffective by setting Jesus on a pedestal of excessive reverence and making him so unique that he is virtually isolated from the human condition. By setting itself apart from the world-wide traditions of mystical religion Christianity appears, not as unique, but as an anomalous oddity with imperious claims. Thus the religion of Jesus became the religion about Jesus, lost its essence, and appeared more and more to be ridiculously aggressive as the context of world religion came into view. How can there be “one flock, one fold, and one Shepherd” unless it is recognized that there are already “other sheep who are not of this fold”?
As might have been expected, Behold the Spirit was criticized for its creeping pantheism—a point of view which, in its many forms, is so repugnant to religious monarchists that simply to be named a pantheist is enough to have one’s case excluded from an intelligent hearing. I am no longer concerned to defend myself against the charge of pantheism because, from my present point of view, all doctrines of God—including atheism—are ultimately false and idolatrous, because doctrines are forms of words which can never be more than pointers to mystical vision, and not by any means the best pointers. At most I feel that some sort of pantheism is the least inconsistent with that vision, and by pantheism (or panentheism) I mean the conception of God as the total energy-field of the universe, including both its positive and negative aspects, and in which every discernible part or process is a sort of microcosm or hologram. That is to say, the whole is expressed in or implied by every part, as is the brain in each one of its cells. This view strikes me as cleaner and simpler than monotheism.
Theoretically, pantheism may blur or confuse the distinction between good and evil, but where is the evidence to show that monotheists are better behaved than pantheists—and by whose standards? Moral principles and sanctions are weakened when absolutized, for much the same reasons that respect for law is diminished by judicial torture and frantic punishment for crime. Metaphysically and intellectually, solutions to the problem of evil require far more tortuous conceptualization for monotheists than for pantheists. Furthermore, the notion that any identity of Creator and creature makes a fundamental “I-Thou” relationship of love between the two impossible is untenable for any believer in the Holy Trinity. How, then, could there be mutual love between God the Father and God the Son, since both, though different, are yet one God? And the objection that the pantheist conception of God is too vague and impersonal to inspire devotion or grace could be to the point if it were no more than a conception, but is groundless if held against the vision which the concept merely represents. Inspiring and worshipful as the character of Jesus may be, it was not what inspired Jesus himself, for he was what he was because he knew of himself that “I and the Father are one,” and not—obviously—because he had accepted Jesus as his Savior. But, from the beginning, institutional Christianity has hardly contemplated the possibility that the consciousness of Jesus might be the consciousness of the Christian, that the whole point of the Gospel is that everyone may experience union with God in the same way and to the same degree as Jesus himself. On the contrary, one who says, with Meiser Eckhart, that “the eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me” is condemned as a heretic.
Small wonder, for the immediate following of Jesus was Jewish and it was as difficult for them as for him to reconcile mystical experience with Biblical monotheism. Instead of following him they worshipped him, for they still felt that—for anyone except Jesus—it would be pride, presumption, and insubordination for a mere creature to be one with the Creator. For monotheism can allow only the devotional (bhakti) style of mysticism, where Creator and creature find union in intense mutual love, never in basic identity. In the context of monarchical monotheism to say, “I am God,” doesn’t seem to carry the implication, “And so are you,” because it has the same ring as saying, “I’m the boss around here.” Within this context the mystic is always in danger of that spiritual megalomania which Jung called “psychic inflation” in which one takes one’s ego for God instead of God for one’s ego—and Christianity has maneuvered Jesus into just that position. It is thus that the individual Christian frustrates himself perpetually, always finding himself guilty for not living up to the example of one who had the unique advantage of being God incarnate, and who was by definition incapable of being guilty.
The question then arises: Can Christianity abandon the monarchical image of God and still be Christianity? Why should this be of concern? For which is more important—to be a Christian or to be at one with God? Must religion be Christian, Islamic or Hindu, or could it simply be religion? Certainly there must be the same variety of style in religion as there is in culture, but the concern to preserve, validate and propagate Christianity as such is a disastrous confusion of religious style with religion. Indeed, this sectarian fanaticism (shared alike by Judaism and Islam) is all of a piece with the monarchical image and its necessary imperialism. Even such scholarly theologians as Maritain and Zaehner keep up this pitiful game of spiritual one-upmanship in differentiating the “natural” mysticism of Hindus and Buddhists from the “supernatural” mysticism of Christians, and continue to damn other religions with faint praise. If Christianity cannot be Christianity without pushing the claim to be the best of all possible religions, the world will breathe more freely when it dissolves.
The practical problem is, what are we going to do on Sunday mornings? How are multitudes of ministers to continue their work? What is to be the use of Church buildings, funds, and administrative machinery? Naturally, institutional Christianity will, in its present form, continue to supply the demand which remains for a monarchical religion. But a considerable number of ministers and even congregations—not to mention millions of reasonably intelligent young people—realize that churches must “put up or shut up,” and that the chief business of religious facilities and assemblies is to provide a social milieu for religious experience. This is no mere matter of changing the externals—of having rock bands instead of organs and Kyrie eleison set to jazz, nor even of turning churches into social service centers with the idea that this would be practicing Christianity seven days a week instead of just talking it on Sundays. Indeed, one may well hope that monarchical Christianity will not be practiced, even on Sundays, since the dutiful spirit in which it dispenses charity breeds resentment in the giver and the receiver alike, for when the one gives with reluctance the other receives with guilt. Ministers and their congregations must instead consider what need there may be for churches as temples for contemplation and meditation, stripped of the courthouse furniture of stalls, pews, pulpits, lecterns and other equipment for throwing the Book at captive audiences. They must consider also the need for retreat houses and religious communities, and for guidance and instruction in the many forms of spiritual discipline which are conducive to mystical vision. They must further consider whether, as things now stand, they are even able to offer such services— sorely neglected as they have been in theological education. Obviously, if Christian groups cannot or will not provide mystical religion, the work will be (and is already being) done by Hindus, Buddhists, Sufis, unaffiliated gurus, and growth centers. Churchmen can no longer afford to laugh these things off as cultish vagaries for goofy and esoteric minorities—as if any intensive practice of religion had ever, anywhere at any time, been of interest to the majority of people.
This prompts me to say that I no longer set much store in the notion that we are about to enter upon some great New Age of spiritual development, or in such theories of historical epochs as were proposed by Joachim of Flora and Oswald Spengler. Fortunately, the preoccupation with these ideas in the first chapter, “The Epoch of the Spirit,” is not essential to the main argument of the book. I am not saying that some great resurgence of spiritual vitality may not be coming upon us. The point is rather that such apocalyptic and messianic hopes for the future distract from the mystic’s essential concern for the Eternal Now and encourage a dependence upon the mere passage of time as a vehicle of grace and growth. The concomitance of our perilous ecological crisis with the sudden expansion of mass-communication technology does indeed suggest that the world is in an apocalyptic and even eschatological situation, in a period of catastrophic revelation and imminent disaster. At times when the future appears to be failing us it is only natural that there should be a resurgence of religion and of interest in things eternal: it is our only recourse. It may amount to no more than the superstitious comforts of fantasy and magic, or of shrieking in desperation to high heaven. But, on the other hand, it may be something like the overwhelming sensation of release and peace which occasionally comes to people facing death.
For at such times there is no escaping the fact that in the pursuit of happiness, power and righteousness the human ego, with all its will and intelligence, has come to its wits’ end. Even the solaces of religious hope and belief seem hollow—being no more than refined and fantastic forms of trying to save our carefully fabricated personalities from coming to an end. But the personality is a phantom even less substantial than the body, being an ephemeral work of art like a musical composition that dies away as it is played. But when it comes to silence we hear another tune, for we are reduced to the guileless simplicity of listening to what is—now. This is really all there is to contemplative mysticism—to be aware without judgement or comment of what is actually happening at this moment, both outside ourselves to do, and no way on or back.
Wait without thought, for you are not yet ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.
For here, where there is neither past nor future, the doors of perception are cleansed, and we see everything as it is—infinite.
Of course, those who have never let themselves be reduced to this simplicity will feel that it is an arid oversimplification, that there must be much more than this—by way of doctrines, precepts and practices—to an effective religious consciousness. Here, then, will be trotted out all the old objections to the negativity c mystical ideas, to the dissolution of God our Father int the “divine darkness” or “cloud of unknowing” c Western mystics, or the featureless Void of the Buddhists. One can but reiterate the point that the mystic is negating only concepts and idols of God, and in this way cleansing the doors of perception in the faith that if God is real, he need not be sought in any particular direction or conceived in any special way. To see the light, it is only necessary to stop dreaming and open the eyes.
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'Lofty Hermitage in Cloudy Mountains', ink on paper by Fang Fanghu
The great Tao flows everywhere, to the left and to the right All things depend upon it to exist, and it does not abandon them. To its accomplishments it lays no claim.
It loves and nourishes all things, but does not lord it over them.
(Laotse, tr. Alan Watts)
That is another thing so nice about the Tao; it is not bossy! It loves and nourishes all things but does not lord it over them. Thus the Tao is something purely helpful—never coersive!
In the Judeo-Christian notion of God, one thing which is so rigidly stressed is obedience to God! The great sins are “disobedience, rebellion against God, pride, self-will”, etc. The Christians are constantly stressing the infinite importance of “total surrender of one’s will to God”. They say, “Let thy will, not mine, be done”.
How very different the Taoist! He never speaks of “obedience” to the Tao but only of “being in harmony” with the Tao—which seems so much more attractive! And being in harmony with the Tao is not something “commanded”, nor something which is one’s “duty”, nor something demanded by “moral law”, nor something sought for some future reward, but is something which is its own reward; it is in itself a state of spiritual tranquility. In this respect it does resemble the Judeo-Christian notion of “communion”.
Another thing, it would seem sort of odd to the Taoist to speak of “surrendering one’s will to the Tao”. In the first place, it doesn’t sound quite right to say that the Tao has its own “will”. The Tao is certainly not willful, and I think the Taoist would tend to regard things having their own will as somehow “willful”—but let that pass! At any rate, the idea of “surrendering” one’s will to the Tao would seem inappropriate since an individual’s so-called “will” is but part of the Tao. It’s not that the Taoist denies free will (nor would he affirm it, for he would tend to regard the whole free will- determinism controversy as a confusing duality), but he would rather say that whatever it is which we call “free-will” is but part of the activities of the Tao. Goethe expressed a similar sentiment when he said that in trying to oppose nature we are only acting according to the laws of nature. Similarly Suzuki has said that Western man thinks he is controlling or conquering nature; he does not realize that in so doing, he is only acting according to the laws of nature.
I must confess that all my life I have reacted with the utmost horror to the idea of “obedience to God”—and even more so to “surrendering one’s will to God”. Some Christians would tell me that I find this idea so horrifying because of my own pride, disobedience, egotism and self-will. But is this really so? I could see some merit in that argument if I objected only to myself surrendering my will to God, but did not mind other people surrendering their wills to God. But this is not the case. I hate the idea of anyone surrendering his will to God. Indeed, I am repelled by any situation in which one sentient being surrender’s his will to another sentient being. I just cannot accept situations in which one commands and the other obeys.
There is, however, one mitigating feature of the situation which I only realized quite recently, as a result of reading some of the writings of Alan Watts. And that is that if a person decides to surrender his will to God, and spends several years undergoing the inner discipline, self-mortification, purgation, etc., he finally reaches a stage in which he suddenly realizes that the issue he has been so violently struggling with is purely illusory! That is to say, he suddenly realizes that his will has been part of God’s will all along and that even his so-called “rebellion” has been but part of God’s activities. In other words, he realizes not that he “shouldn’t” rebel against God, but that he simply cannot. Put in less theological terms, it is like the man who suddenly has a Satori-like realization that he is not controlling Nature, as he had thought, but rather that Nature is controlling him to think that he is controlling Nature—or better still, that neither is he controlling Nature nor is Nature controlling him, but that he and Nature are one. [Who knows, perhaps that is what Jesus really meant when he said in the fourth Gospel, “The Father and I are one.”]
Now, if “surrendering one’s will to God” really does lead to this wonderful state—so close to Taoistic harmony or Zen Satori—then there is of course something to be said for it. But must one go through these horrible spiritual gymnastics to attain this end? Is there not a saner path?
I can only think again of the Taoist Sage by the river stream, not worrying about “obedience” or “surrendering his will” or not even conceptualizing the notion of “being in harmony with the Tao”, but simply being in harmony with the Tao and enjoying it to his hearts content.
---BUY THE BOOK:
A friend lent me this book (Wonders of Spiritual Unfoldment by John Butler) and after reading a few pages I thought it was going to be one of those books that becomes a lifelong friend - the kind you re-read every couple of years.
But I was mistaken.
Having returned the book to its owner, it was not two years, but only two months later that I was clicking "buy" on Amazon, haunted by many half-remembered passages and wondering if they were really as profound and compelling as memory seemed to suggest.
I'm happy to report that they were.
Re-reading the book, I realized that it had deeply affected me on many levels.
Mr. Butler's youthful idealism led him to seek out opportunities to improve the world. While pursuing this quest as a farmer in South America, an inner voice said: "To make whole, be whole". He realized that: "... before being able to help others, I first had to work on myself".
In the early chapters there are many moving and beautifully written vignettes of travels in Africa, America, Australia, Peru and elsewhere. While these are interesting in themselves, they are always judiciously selected to illustrate their effect on the author's inner life. Sometimes they are far from flattering and their inclusion is a testimony to his honesty and humility.
Mr. Butler has a farmer's love and understanding of the land and he writes of nature with a poetic simplicity that comes from a place of great stillness. His prose has the power to transmit this state of mind to the reader:
"I knew heaven this morning, as sun shone over the frosty land. At first I shared it with a little bird, and then with a puddle, and then with some cattle, steaming softly in the yard below. And then a man came, and he alone of all creation, knew it not".
In a less sincere writer the biblical turn of phrase, "knew it not", might sound affected, but in this true and simple vision of a pastoral Eden it strikes an entirely appropriate note.
However, Mr. Butler is much more than a nature mystic with literary talent and the core of the book is concerned with transcendent experience - the times when:
"...the curtains of ordinary, visible existence were drawn aside, and I was shown a glimpse of what lies beyond. All my adventures and (so called) achievements, the countless thoughts, the good and even wonderful events - all seem as nothing compared to these "moments of truth" which shine out as lamps, guiding me home after long years of exile in a foreign land".
But the journey home is not without its difficulties and for me, at least, Mr. Butler's wise and perceptive account of these obstacles and traps is one of the book's most valuable gifts.
His precise and often harrowing descriptions of how the process of spiritual unfoldment involves constant oscillation between profound states of rapture and the pain of estrangement when "normal" consciousness returns, struck a deep chord in me.
Other mystics have of course addressed this theme, but their treatment usually relies heavily on poetic and abstract prose: The "Bride" and "Bridegroom" of St. John of the Cross, or the Sufi aspirant's longing for the elusive "Beloved".
The eternal complaint of mystics is the impossibility of framing their profound insights and experiences in a language which has no vocabulary - or even concepts - capable of expressing such rarified perceptions. Small wonder, then, that so many have resorted to symbolism.
Mr. Butler is the only mystic I know of who succeeds in describing the roller coaster that is spiritual unfoldment in such concrete and personal language, (except perhaps for the neglected early 20th century English writer, Lilian Staveley).
In this he has performed a great service to those who experience similar trials and can draw much comfort from the honesty and immediacy of his account.
Feeling that the Church of England "did not rise to the spiritual direction my young mind required", his early spiritual experiences resulted in a search that eventually led to the School of Meditation run by disciples of Shantan and Saraswati, Shankaracharya of Northern India. Paradoxically, the Shankaracharya's teachings had the effect of deepening Mr. Butler's understanding of the great devotional classics of Christianity, such as The Cloud of Unknowing and The Practice of the Presence of God.
After several decades of work, meditation, travel and adventure, Mr. Butler somehow lost his bearings and entered a soul-destroying period of homelessness, spiritual confusion and intense self-loathing. Fearing madness, he fled to the wilderness (this is a recurring pattern in his life) and ended up working as a cook at a little gas-station in the Mojave Desert, where:
"One evening, after work, I walked far away up the side of the valley and, as I remember, sat there on a rock with my head in my hands. I must have been at about my lowest point. And someone came and stood beside me. Jesus. Invisible, but absolutely sure. I've never doubted it".
This was a turning point and things gradually began to improve: "From then on I felt a new sense of safety in Jesus. It seemed highly significant that, although I had not sought in particular for Jesus, He came, as Savior, to me. Gradually, my practice adjusted itself to become the Jesus prayer".
Returning to England and seeking employment, Mr. Butler visited a Job Centre where a course of Higher Education was suggested. He enrolled as a mature student at the University of Nottingham to study the Russian language. His exploration of the spiritual dimensions of the novels of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, demonstrate a keen critical faculty as well as an ability to read and listen with the heart.
Graduating when almost in his sixtieth year - a time when most people are looking forward to a peaceful retirement - he travelled to Russia to teach English, where:
"...for the first time in my life, I felt amongst my own people..." (Mr. Butler's mother was Siberian).
Sitting quietly in his flat one evening, he experienced the presence of Our Lady, whose being appeared to radiate from an icon on the wall. After this experience his prayer life deepened considerably and mystical experiences are recorded with ever increasing frequency.
This was very interesting to me, having recently read the late Fr. Anthony De Mello's book, Sadhana, which is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary with this comment:
"I am convinced that it is her [The Virgin Mary's] intercession that has obtained for me, and for many of the people I have guided, graces in prayer that we should never have acquired otherwise. There, then, is my first piece of advice to you if you would make progress in the art of contemplation: Seek out her patronage and ask for her intercession before you start out on this way. She has been given the charisma of drawing down the Holy Spirit on the Church, as she did at the Annunciation and at Pentecost, when she prayed with the Apostles. If you get her to pray with you and for you, you will be very fortunate indeed".
Mr. Butler's descriptions of his inner life begin to include what he calls, "windows of realization". I would do him an injustice if I attempted to summarize these insights, but their essence is an experience of union in which the false self, (ego), is temporarily shed and with it the delusional fears and problems that assail us in the realms of separation.
Suffice it to say that the next 250 or so pages contain some of the most profound and subtle writing on the nature of union and duality in the literature of mysticism. As mentioned above, a recurrent theme is the involuntary oscillation between these spiritual polarities. Mr. Butler arrives at a deep understanding of this condition:
"I realize clearly now, and alternatively experience, two worlds. One, where most things, people etc. are outside of oneself, and life is a continuous effort of "me" accepting, rejecting, trying to do, change or be something i.e. rearrange bits of separation. In the other world, everything is experienced inside oneself. It is entirely without effort or desire, and things are seen to happen of themselves (by Grace). Knowledge, for example, is revealed, not learnt. The key is observation from the mind at rest (humility), which also brings realization that one's separate "me" is a self-willed, ignorant imposter, the very cause of separation and trouble (pride). In the all containment of Spirit, prayer for "others" is automatic. Comprehending the whole world within oneself, and being oneself open to divine Grace, the only impediment is rejection of it. To help the world, my entire task is to remove the impediment of "me".
This is the "unseen battle" that begins with the effort to shift the identification of our consciousness to pure awareness, rather than identifying with the contents of that awareness, i.e., thoughts. The chapter, Notes From Stillness, contains much excellent advice on this endeavor.
The spiritual experiences and cosmic visions continue to increase in beauty and intensity, (yet they are always recounted with deep humility and a sense of wonder at being afforded such graces). I often find that simply reading about them induces a remarkable change in my own consciousness (although I make no claim to scale the lofty heights repeatedly attained by the author).
In my opinion, Mr. Butler has written a spiritual classic.
The Wonders of Spiritual Unfoldment is indeed a book to be read again and again. Over time it yields fresh insights and endlessly deepening layers of meaning as the reader's own spiritual unfoldment reveals treasures that were hitherto concealed.
The book's modular structure also makes it ideal for picking up and opening at random whenever inspiration or wise companionship are required. With uncanny regularity I find my eye falling on a passage that contains the precise spiritual truth that I needed to be reminded of at that particular moment.
Weighing in at just over 400 pages, it's a sprawling, big-hearted tapestry of a book that defies every rule of literary composition yet somehow hangs together as a rich, organic whole. There are verses (lyrical, spiritual and didactic); philosophical reflections; letters; essays; journal entries; prose-poems; literary criticism; mystical transports; travel sketches and even a sort of metaphysical FAQ., all strung like glowing pearls on a contextualizing thread of autobiographical narrative.
I see now that the reason I had to revisit the book after only two months was the sheer impossibility of taking so much in at a single reading. Of course, it's equally impossible to do it justice in a review - even a long-winded one like this.
Undoubtedly Mr. Butler is best qualified to pronounce on his own work, so I leave the last word to him:
"This book will not satisfy "me" - nor will it wholly satisfy a thoughtful mind. It does however amply indicate that "me" surrendered opens up into that "treasure in heaven", which ego can neither penetrate nor see. It may at first seem improbable, but as the process gradually unfolds, so gentle and self-evident, you wonder why it is not more widely understood. Troubles are all at the beginning when the murky mind of ego is still trying to include itself in the light. Understand this and the principle of "letting go" becomes clear. Then the way opens to discover that the love, peace, joy and all heart's yearning that elude us in this world, are waiting inexhaustibly in Spirit".
The Book and Mr. Butler's Website:
“The Karate Kid and Why There is (or Can Be) Purpose Behind Everything That Happens” by Karem Barratt
by Chungkong Art
I’ve just finished watching the original version of The Karate Kid with my nine-year old, and as I watched, I had what Oprah Winfrey would call, an Aha! moment. Anyone who was child or teenager during the 80s and saw the movie, must surely remember those iconic scenes of “wax on, wax off.” But, for the benefit of our younger readers, I’ll describe them briefly.
Daniel asks Mr. Miyagi to teach him karate. Mr. Miyagi accepts, but only after both have enter a “sacred contract” in which Daniel basically commits to trusting his teacher. On the first day, Mr Miyagi asks Daniel to watch and wax his cars, doing a specific set of motions with his hands. This instruction is repeated during the following days, when the older man asks Daniel to sand the floor, paint the fence and paint the house.
On each occasion, Daniel protests. He feels that his methods are better and fasters and Mr. Miyagi’s make little sense. But, eventually he complies to the instructions -until the fourth day when our Daniel explodes in anger, as he feels lied to and tricked by the supposedly karate teacher. In one brilliant moment of extraordinary educational methodology, Mr. Miyagi shows Daniel how each hard, boring and senseless task has trained his body to respond automatically and turned the different actions into karate moves.Once Daniel grasp this, he’s fully engaged during the following lessons and he receives them with patience, harmony and dedication.
Now, I can hear some of you saying something like: “great! And what does all of this have to do with life’s purpose and events?” A lot, actually. “The Lord’s ways are mysterious,” is a well-known expression in the Christian tradition, to talk about “strange coincidences” or difficult moments for which we find no reason or explanation, and feel abandoned by the God of our understanding. Let’s imagine then that all of us are bit like the protagonist of the Karate Kid: each human is Daniel and the Divine is Mr. Miyagi.
Many spiritual traditions, particularly the modern ones, seem to agree that, like in the film, before coming to this physical realm, each one of us makes a contract or agreement to exploit some talents, pay some karmic debts, and go through some experiences -all for the spiritual growth of our soul. But just as Mr. Miyagi doesn’t give much explanations as to why the fence has to be painted on a certain way, the Divine, after designing our life curriculum (with, I believe, some of our input,) keeps this information away from us on an intellectual level. Why? No idea. But if I were to give a reason, I would say that for showmanship. To create an experience where insight can explode like fireworks on New Year’s Eve and make the lesson(s) truly unforgettable.
Allow me to explain. Daniel could have accepted all the instructions quietly and, eventually, understand how they related to Karate. Maybe Mr. Miyagi himself, or the girlfriend, or another karate student would have pointed out the association and Daniel would have had a mini “aha” moment. Yet, this information would be second-handed, not wisdom born from the depth of his true Self. But when Daniel loses his faith in his teacher, his mission and his work, lets out all his frustrations and fears, he goes through what has been called “the dark night of the soul:” a hard, painful, almost soul-destroying moment all spiritual walkers go through, that is a bit like having your skin ripped off to open a space for new one to grow. And once we see the dawn, that which we were, we are no more. The way we see ourselves, life and our relationship with the Divine changes forever.
We still may not have all the answers, but we now live in the knowledge that there is purpose in all that happens, and if we are diligent students, we will look for and assimilate the lessons. We still have to struggle on in our spiritual studies, but now we are supported by our inner faith in the Spirit we have come to understand. We will get hit and we will get hurt (see poor Daniel’s state at the end of the film) but now we know we are not alone, that the Goddess heals, the God guides, that Deity is with us, holding us, yes, but also suffering and feeling with us, while at the same times it’s cheering us, being both hammer and nail, as it mould us into the precious piece of jewellery, the work of art, the masterpiece we were born to be. And at the end, in a sublime moment of true communion, we see the Divine with the eyes of our soul, half smiling, half crying, and we say: “we did it Mr. Miyagi! We did it!”