Monthly Archives: September 2020

Spiritual homelands 5

Thomas Merton was a seeker all of his adult life for his spiritual homeland. The Abbey of Gethsemani became his home and the hermitage a place for spiritual growth and the development and deepening of his spiritual practice of contemplative prayer. In the months before Merton set off for Asia he visited Alaska and California – searching further for the ideal spiritual homeland. For somewhere he could move to – the perfect place. There seemed some possibilities, but it is as he is in the plane setting off for Asia that he writes this:

‘I am going home, to the home where I have never been in this body, where I have never been in this washable suit (washed by Sister Gerarda the other day at the Redwoods), where I have never been with these suitcases … where I have never been with these particular books …’

Asia had been a goal for him as far back as his time at Columbia University and an ever more urgent goal in later years. Michael Mott notes that Merton even had a sense of having once been in Asia, a feeling he wrote about in The Sign of Jonas. ‘The junk wagon I saw in Louisville comes back to me like the memory of something very precious once seen in the Orient’. Two months before actually leaving for Asia, Merton writes in his journal looking forward to eight weeks’ time when he leaves:

‘And who knows- I may not come back… Really, I don’t care one way or another if I never come back … if I can find somewhere to disappear to, I will.’ These words prefigure Merton’s last words before his death after speaking at the Bangkok conference: ‘So I will disappear from view.’ Two months before Merton is writing that he expects little or nothing from the future, ‘what really intrigues me is the idea of starting out into something unknown, demanding and expecting nothing very special, and hoping only to do what God asks of me, whatever it is.’  But at the moment of the plane taking off that has changed. He is really excited about what might lie ahead.

‘The moment of take-off was ecstatic … Joy. We left the ground – I with Christian mantras and a great sense of destiny, of being at last on my true way after years of waiting and wondering and fooling around. May I not come back without having settled the great affair.* And found also the great compassion, mahakaruna.’

And it seems that he did find this in front of the huge Buddhist statues in Polonnaruwa. He achieved what Michael Mott calls ‘the step over “the edge of great realization”. Is this then the spiritual homeland – perhaps for everyone, the almost unsayable experience of oneness and incredible beauty where ‘everything is emptiness and everything is compassion’.

*The great affair in Zen Buddhism: This affair is like the bright sun in the blue sky, shining clearly, changeless and motionless, without diminishing or increasing. It shines everywhere in the daily activities of everyone, appearing in everything. Though you try to grasp it, you cannot get it; though you try to abandon it, it always remains. It is vast and unobstructed, utterly empty. Like a gourd floating on water, it cannot be reined in or held down. Since ancient times, when good people of the Path have attained this, they’ve appeared and disappeared in the sea of birth and death, able to use it fully.

Spiritual homelands 4

Carl Jung’s spiritual homeland was a specific area along the upper lake of Zurich, at a place called Bollingen where he eventually built a tower. ‘I had always been curiously drawn by the scenic charm of the upper lake of Zurich … situated in the area of St Meinrad and old church land, having formerly belonged to the monastery of St Gall.’ Over the years Jung built on to the original round house which was begun in 1923 after the death of his mother, and so by 1955 after the death of his wife he added a further tower to the two already in place ‘the maternal’ and the ‘spiritual’ – a place connected with the dead.

Jung saw the place and the surrounding water and land as somewhere he could be himself, and that it represented for him the process of individuation, where he could become ‘what I was, what I am and will be. It gave me a feeling as if I were being reborn in stone … I built it in a kind of dream. Only afterwards did I see how all the parts fitted together and that a meaningful form had resulted: a symbol of psychic wholeness’. It became a mandala in stone.

It was at this place that Jung felt in the midst of his true life and could be most deeply himself.

‘At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things and am myself living in every tree, in the splashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons. There is form over the decades, nothing with which I am not linked. Here everything has its history, and mine; here is a space for the spaceless kingdom of the world’s and the psyche’s hinterland.’

Jung did without electricity, tending the fireplace and stove himself, and using old lamps – the water was pumped form the well, and he chopped the wood and cooked the food – he thought that such simple acts make people simple, and that it is difficult to be simple. It was also where ‘silence surrounds me almost audibly, and I live, “in modest harmony with nature”. Thoughts rise to the surface which reach back into the centuries and accordingly anticipate a remote future. Here the torment of creation is lessened; creativity and play are close together’. Jung experienced in a wakened state a visitation from souls from the past – coming he thought out of curiosity to see what he had built.

On his 75th birthday Jung inscribed a stone with different quotations on each side. The side facing the lake reads:

‘I am an orphan, alone; nevertheless I am found everywhere. I am one, but opposed to myself. I am youth and old man at one and the same time. I have known neither father nor mother, because I have had to be fetched out of the deep like a fish, or fell like a white stone from heaven. In woods and mountains I roam, but I am hidden in the innermost soul of man. I am mortal for everyone, yet I am not touched by the cycle of aeons.’

Bollingen was Jung’s spiritual homeland where he could ‘live life in the round, as something forever coming into being and passing on.’

Spiritual homelands 3

In 1898 when the theologian and writer on mysticism Evelyn Underhill was 23 she went abroad with her parents to Switzerland and Italy. This was the start of her recognition of a need for the deeply spiritual nourishment that can be found there. She visited the Alps and beyond the Alps was Italy. She wrote in her notebook the rather stiff sentence: ‘I entered Italy’. Later she was to add, ‘Italy, the holy land of Europe, the only place left, I suppose, that is really medicinal to the soul … There is a type of mind which must go there to find itself.’

When her parents left Evelyn Underhill went on alone to Florence where she wandered around the galleries and churches. In an early novel that she wrote, she attributes to her hero the feelings that she herself experienced when coming face-to-face for the first time with a panel called ‘The Madonna adoring the Infant Christ’. She describes the picture where,

‘the mystical, reasonable, and austere come together … in its joyous purity of outline, the intimate holiness … the strange majesty of the rapt Madonna … the wistful angels who lean against the side of her throne are hushed by her intense stillness. They are spiritual persons who cannot understand the earthly love which blends Mother and worshipper in one. She dreams of her Child, lying very helplessly and gladly upon its mother’s knees, as all that is holy lies upon the lap of perfect beauty.’

In the novel the hero is deeply affected, ‘something unearthly, something remote from life laid its quieting hand upon him. These things had not been conceived in the petty agitations of ordinary life. The Beyond had been at their birth, and left a token of its presence.’

After this visit to Italy, Underhill returned home longing to penetrate into that Beyond. She returned the following year to Florence and then in 1902 went with her mother to Umbria which from then on she especially claimed as her spiritual homeland.

‘Umbria, where the little hills reach up towards the kiss of God, bearing her small white cities nearer heaven … where Francis walked … there is a Peace of God eternally established. In this country, long beloved of the dreamy arts, spirits wearied by dark journeyings may still feel the quieting touch of Immanent Peace.’

She wrote in her diary of Assisi:

‘Assisi is well called La Beata for its soul is more manifest than any other city that I have ever known … [Assisi] expresses the heart of Italy. I think after careful consideration that St Francis must rank with Our Lady of Chartres as one of the two most beautiful churches that I have seen.’

Spiritual homelands 2

India was another spiritual homeland for Kathleen Raine and she describes what she calls the ‘India of the Imagination’ in her book India Seen Afar. It is for her the Orient, ‘the Golden Dawn’. In the west we have lost our orient – hence we are disorientated.

Raine only visited India in reality when she was over seventy, but for decades before she saw it in her mind as: ‘another country; everywhere and nowhere … universal … the place of every arrival, the term of every spiritual quest … the frontier between this and other worlds. But that frontier too is everywhere, is in ourselves.’

For her India is the goal of the human journey of the soul, and as Raine writes, ‘the soul has an instinct, like animals, for where water is to be found’. Raine said that she had to make a lifelong detour through her work for example of Blake and her own poetry so that she could ‘weave that slender bridge’ … ‘there are no short cuts to our destined times and places.’

Interestingly India (as indeed I also found) is not a comforting spiritual homeland. She writes:

‘Those who make the passage to India can expect no simple answers, no answers at all; rather perhaps to become more aware of the mystery. Those who want answers had better go elsewhere… In India [William] Blake’s dread forms of certainty’, melt away. Certainties are lost, rather than found.’

India is as Raine describes it, rather a state of mind and in this way is a paradox that throws us ultimately back on ourselves, but Indian civilisation and culture does offer and embrace a knowledge of mysticism that has not been really encouraged by Christianity and that has been largely destroyed by Western secularism. Of course she notes that this too could destroy ‘in India the wisdom of ages’, but that before it does the wisdom of mysticism could restore a spiritual vision to the West.

‘Christian Vedanta may indeed offer a way of release to those who are “stuck with” the Church so to speak … no Hindu would after all, ask any to deny the Lord Jesus. India has seen many divine incarnations and has taught that whenever the world’s darkness is greatest, then the ever-living will assume human form to restore and heal the sad soul of the world … In arriving in the India of the Imagination those who wish to do so will find the Lord Jesus already there. Not indeed the fictitious demigod of the Church or the ‘historical’ figure of the seekers for “factual” evidence that He lived, but an aspect of “MY divine life”’.

The India of the Imagination is a homecoming for those of mystical persuasion: ‘for “home”, by whatever way we reach it, is everywhere and nowhere.’