Finding our Way

‘… the knowledge of spiritual things is given through one’s experience of life.’

Martin Israel

Whilst the reasons for ‘losing our way’ in the previous posts were largely collective and societal, there are many individual accounts of people who have ‘found their way’, and these can offer us insight and indeed inspiration. Some of these are through suffering. One example of this is the story that the theologian Martin Israel gives in his privately published memoir.

Martin Israel, priest, healer, mystic, spiritual director, retreat conductor, and counsellor, was part of an emerging movement, where faith developed through integrating life experience rather than through rationalisation and theology based on doctrines and traditional teachings. In other words, he found his way through direct personal experiences. And some of these experiences from which his faith was constructed were hard to verbalise and process so he was involved with much personal struggle, developing a willingness to live with uncertainty.

His spirituality was founded on his traumatic and lonely childhood. He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on 30 April 1927, the only child of liberal, affluent Jewish parents; his father an eye surgeon whose view of life Martin described as ‘shallow and materialistic.’ In his autobiography he recounts the loneliness of his childhood, the undesirable qualities of his parents and a very unpleasant family background.

‘My mother was quarrelsome and neurotic, and my father was a paedophile who practised fulsomely on me. My mother’s nature ensured that I would have no friends, while my father’s assault on my body degraded me so that I always felt inferior to my classmates at school. I have therefore had an inferiority complex.’

It is not clear when his father’s sexual abuse began, but it seems likely that it was from a young age, as Martin’s first spiritual vision took place when he was three years old when he heard a voice directly addressing him and that carried with it a radiant light. This vision gave the little boy a preview of his life, and the path he would follow to become authentic.

‘The path was a fearsome one. I was to pass along a dark and ever-narrowing tunnel, alone and isolated, and to move further and further away from all personal contact towards a dark, undisclosed future. There was to be no outer comfort … I would be lonely and often misunderstood, yet I would be driven on … compelled to go on in order to find and fulfil the real work in my life, even to its culmination in the darkness of death.’

From childhood Martin had an intimation that death was not the end, and that the suffering to be undergone was a precursor for glorification. The vision as a young child left him with a sense of dereliction: ‘The burden was almost too great to bear.’ Some solace came through the warmth of the African servants who worked in his home, and in whom he sensed a ‘spiritual reality’; some of whom seem to have been able to emotionally reach the traumatised little boy. One gave Martin an evangelical tract about Jesus.

‘The knowledge of this man pierced me to the marrow of my being. I knew in my depths that it was he who had spoken to me … I could never turn away from his life and his solemn witness to the truth.’