Continued from chapter: (F) “The Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James – Part I
Lectures XI, XII and XIII – SAINTLINESS
The last lecture left us in a state of expectancy: What may have been the practical fruits for life of such movingly happy conversions as those we’ve heard of? We endeavor, says James, to attain a spiritual judgement as to the value and positive meaning of all the religious trouble and happiness which we have thus far seen. Therefore, we first describe the fruits of the religious life and then, we must judge them.
It ought to be the pleasantest portion of our business although, it is true, some small pieces of it may be painful or, may show human nature in a pathetic state. Regardless, James professes, the best fruits of the religious experience are the finest things human history has to show us. That being: the highest flights of charity, devotion, trust, patience and bravery to which the wings of human nature have spread themselves and flown for the sake of religious ideals. And, says James, he can do no better than to quote, as to this point, some remarks by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve [19th century French literary critic and author] on the results of conversion, or the state of grace:
“Even from the purely human point of view, the phenomenon of grace must certainly appear sufficiently extraordinary, eminent and rare both in its nature and in its effects. For, the soul arrives thereby at a certain fixed and invincible state; a state which is genuinely heroic and from out of which the greatest deeds which it [the soul] ever performs are executed. Through all the different forms of communion, and all the diversity of the means: in jubilee, by a general confession, out of a state of anguish, by a solitary prayer, etc. (in short, the prior state of mind and the occasion) which help to produce this state, it is easy to recognize that the state of grace is fundamentally one state both in spirit and fruits. There is inevitably a single quality, or result, common to those who have received grace: an inner state which, before all things, a fundamental spirit of love and humility, of infinite confidence in God and of severity regarding one’s own self along with feelings of tenderness for others. And, this condition of the soul has the same savor in all; under distant suns and in different surroundings; in Saint Teresa of Avila just as in any Moravian brother of Herrnhut.”
James then poses a general psychological question as to what the inner conditions are which may make one human character differ so extremely from another. And to this he replies, where the character (as distinguished from the intellect) is concerned, the causes of human diversity lie chiefly in our differing susceptibilities of emotional excitement, and in the different impulses and inhibitions which these bring in their train. Stated differently, our moral and practical attitude at any given time is always a resultant of two sets of forces: Yes! say the impulses and No! say the inhibitions. The influence is so incessant that it is practically subconscious. Proprieties and their inhibitions snap like cobwebs if any great emotional excitement supervenes. For example, he continues, I have seen a dandy appear in the street with his face covered with shaving lather because a house across the way was on fire. And a woman will run among strangers in her night gown if it be a question of saving her baby’s life or her own. Take a self-indulgent woman in general; one inclined to yield to every inhibition set by her disagreeable sensations; lie late in bed, live on tea and bromides [sedatives], never endure the cold; in other words, every discomfort finds her obedient to its “no” response. But, make a mother of her, and then what have you then? Possessed by maternal excitement she now confronts wakefulness, weariness and toil without an instant of hesitation or a word of complaint. The inhibitive power of discomfort and pain over her is extinguished wherever the baby’s interests are at stake. This is referred to as the expulsive power of a higher affection.
Sometimes, James alleges, no particular emotional state reigns, but rather many conflicting ones are mixed together and here the will is called upon to solve the conflict. Take a soldier for example, with his dread of being cowardly impelling him to advance, as well his fears impelling him to run for his life, and his propensities toward imitation pushing him along with the actions of his comrades. Under such a circumstance he may waver for a bit because no one emotion prevails. Yet, the fury of his comrades’ charge, once engaged, will rout out his fear. In these excitements, the inhibitions are annulled and their “no! no!” not only is not heard, it does not exist. “Lass sie betteln gehn wenn sie hungrig sind!” cries the grenadier, frantic over his Emperor’s capture. Yet, when his wife’s and babe’s vulnerability are so much as suggested, men, pent into a burning fury, have been known to cut their way through the crowd with knives.
Nothing annihilates an inhibition as irresistibly as anger does; for, as Moltke says of war, destruction pure and simple is its essence. The sweetest delights are trampled on with a ferocious pleasure the moment they offer themselves as checks to a cause by which our higher indignations are elicited. It costs then nothing to drop friendships, to renounce family, to renounce long routed privileges and possessions, to break with social ties. Rather, we then take a stern joy in the astringency and desolation; and what is then considered weakness of character seems an inaptitude for these sacrificial moods of which one’s own inferiorities and petty softnesses must be the targets and the victims.
Helmuth von Moltke (1800 – 1891) was a German Field Marshal, His nephew, Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke, was chief of the German General Staff at the outbreak of World War l.
The great thing which the higher excitabilities give us is courage, James professes. And, the more or less of a certain amount of this quality makes for a different man; a different life. And various arousal or excitement lets the courage loose; trustful hope will do it, inspiring example will do it, love will do it, wrath will do it. For most, one has to deliberately overcome their inhibitions should the cause arise. Whereas the genius with the inborn passion appears not to feel them at all; he is free of all that inner friction and nervous waste. To a George Fox (Quakers founder) or a General Booth (Salvation Army founder), for example, the obstacles omnipotent before their great cause were as if non-existent. There may be many such heroes for, many have the wish to live for similar ideals and only the adequate degree of inhibition-quenching passion is lacking.
The difference between willing and merely wishing, between having ideals that are creative and ideals that are but pinings, depends solely on the amount of “steam-pressure” chronically driving the individual in the ideal direction. Given a certain amount of love, indignation, generosity, magnanimity, loyalty, admiration or enthusiasm of self-surrender, the result is always the same. The whole raft of cowardly obstructions, which in tame persons and dull moods are sovereign impediments to action, sinks away at once. Conventionalities, shyness, laziness, and stinginess, demands for precedent and permission, for guarantee and surety, small suspicions, timidities, despairs, where are they now? Severed like cobwebs, broken like soap bubbles in the sun.
“Love would not be love,” James quotes another, “unless it could carry one to crime.” In other words, great passions annul the ordinary inhibition set by conscience. Conversely, of all the criminal human beings, the false, cowardly, sensual, or cruel persons who live, there is perhaps not one whose criminal impulse may not be overpowered by the presence of some other emotion to which their character is also potentially liable; provided that emotion be only made intense enough. Fear is usually the emotion producing such an effect in this particular class of persons. For them, it stands for conscience and may thus be classed as a “higher affection.” James also suggests, If we are soon to die, or if we believe our day of judgement to be near at hand, how quickly do we put our moral house in order. For, it is then that we do not see how sin can evermore exert temptation over us! Old fashioned hell-fire Christianity well knew how to extract from fear its full equivalent in the way of fruits for repentance and its full conversion value.
He now turns our attention from these psychological generalities to those gleanings of the religious state which form the unique subjects of our present lecture: Those who turned from their previous carnal selves and toward their religious center of personal energy having become actualized by spiritual enthusiasms. The new ardor which burned in their breasts consumed in its glow the lower “noes” which formerly beset them thus keeping them immune against infection from the groveling portion of their nature. Chivalries once impossible were made easy, and paltry conventionalities and selfish incentives, once tyrannical, held no sway.
At the end of the previous lecture we saw this permanence to be true of the general impact of the higher insight even though in the ebbs of emotional excitement its weaker influence might temporarily prevail and backsliding might occur. However, those lower sensations might remain completely annulled regardless of transient emotional states. The most numerous cases are those of reformed drunkards; the Jerry McAuley Water Street Mission abounds in similar instances. James also refers us to the Oxford graduate [whose conversion I stated that I chose not to report in detail in the last lecture] converted at three in the afternoon, who got drunk in the hay-field the next day, but after that was permanently cured of his appetite. Here James quotes the man, “From that hour drink has had no terrors for me; I never touch it, never want it. The same thing occurred with my pipe … the desire for it went at once and has never returned. So with every known vice, the deliverance in each case being permanent and complete. I have had no temptations since conversion.”
James then cites the case of Colonel Gardiner: that of a man cured of sexual temptation in a single hour. He here quotes the Colonel “I was effectually cured of all inclination to that sin I was so strongly addicted to that I thought of nothing but shooting myself through the head. And yet [the result of his conversion] all desire and inclination to it was removed entirely nor has the temptation returned to this day.” Another is quoted by James in reference to Gardiner, “One thing I have heard the colonel frequently say was that he was much addicted to impurity before his acquaintance with religion but, so soon as he was enlightened from above, he felt the power of the Holy Spirit changing his nature so wonderfully that his sanctification, in this respect, seemed more remarkable than in any other respect.”
Colonel James Gardiner (1688 – 1745) was a Scottish soldier who fought in the British army. He fought with distinction in several battles and was promoted through the ranks to Colonel in 1743. Gardiner was known as a rake in his youth but had a religious experience in 1719 following which he became a devout convert.
Here James gives us another example from Professor Starbuck’s collection: “When I was about forty I tried to quit smoking, but the desire was on me and had me in its power. I cried and prayed and promised God to quit, but could not. I had smoked for fifteen years. When I was fifty three, as I sat by the fireplace one day smoking a voice came to me. I did not hear it with my ears; more like as in a dream. It said, ‘Louisa, lay down smoking.’ At once I replied, ‘Will you take the desire away?’ But it only kept repeating: ‘Louisa, lay down smoking.’ I then got up, placed my pipe on the mantel and never smoked again nor had any desire to. The desire was gone as though I had never known it or touched tobacco. The sight of others smoking and the smell never once gave me the least wish to touch it again.”
James here ponders if the grace of God miraculously operates through the subconscious door yet, just how anything in this region operates is quite unexplained. He then suggests that we shall do well now to say good-by to the process of transformation altogether – leaving with it a good deal of psychological or theological mystery and instead turn our attention to the favorable results of the religious condition in whatever way they may have been produced.
The author now looks at the universal qualities of saintliness and states that there is a certain composite photograph, if you will, of universal saintliness; in other words it is the same in all religions of which the features can be traced. And they are:
1. A feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world’s selfish and little interests, and a conviction, not merely intellectual, but rather sensible of the existence of an Ideal Power.
2. A sense of the friendly continuity of the Ideal Power with our own life and a willing self-surrender to its control.
3. An immense elation and freedom as the outline of the confining selfhood melts down.
4. A shifting of the emotional center towards loving and harmonious affections; towards “yes, yes” impulses in these respects and away from the “noes” of the ego in regard to such.
James then states that these fundamental inner conditions of saintliness have characteristic practical consequences, as follows:
a. Asceticism: The ordinary inhibitions of the flesh that the saint finds positive pleasure in, sacrifice and asceticism, thus expressing, as they do, the degree of their loyalty to the Higher Power.
b. Strength of Soul: The sense of enlargement of life may be so uplifting that personal motives and inhibitions, commonly omnipotent, become too insignificant for notice and new reaches of patience and fortitude open up. Fears and anxieties go; come heaven, come hell, it matters not now!
c. Purity: The shifting of the emotional center brings with it an increase of purity. The sensitiveness to spiritual discords is enhanced and the cleansing of existence from brutal and sensual elements becomes imperative. Occasions of contact with such elements are avoided [living not amongst ordinary society]; the saintly life must deepen its spiritual consistency maintaining its blamelessness from the world.
d. Charity: The shifting of the emotional center brings an increase of charity, a tenderness for fellow creatures. The saint loves his enemies and treats beggars as his brothers.
James will now give some concrete examples of the ‘fruits of the spiritual tree,’ as he puts it. The only difficulty, he professes is to choose, for they are so abundant. He adds that in our narratives of conversion we saw how the world might look shining and transfigured to the convert. Yet, apart from anything intensely religious we all have moments when the universal life seems to wrap us round with friendliness. Henry David Thoreau writes:
“In the midst of a gentle rain … I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature in the very pattering of the drops and every sight and sound around my house an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once; like an atmosphere sustaining me and, as well, made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me.”
Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) was an author, poet, tax resister (because of his opposition to the Mexican American War and slavery), abolitionist, and philosopher. He is best known for his book “Walden” about simple living in natural surroundings and his essay “A Resistance to Civil Government” on civil disobedience. He was born in Concord, Massachusetts into a family of modest means. At Harvard he studied rhetoric, science, mathematics, and philosophy.
James mentions that in the Christian consciousness this sense of the enveloping becomes most personal and definite.
L.T. – Here I must refer to my own state that would qualify as an “enveloping” in this sense. It did have a profound effect on my political activist activities which I could no longer, from that day to the present, years later, participate in with any significant interest or enthusiasm following the unexpected “converting” experience. The reader here can go to chapter (A) MIRACLES – Enlightenment or a Holy Instant, page 13 (above) and read of the report of that experience.
James quotes a German author: “The compensation [of the ‘enveloping,’ with all, experience] for the loss of that sense of personal independence [the ego, the sense of separateness] which man so unwillingly relinquishes is the disappearance of all fear from one’s life; the indescribable and inexplicable feeling of an inner security which, one can only experience, but once it has been experienced, one can never forget.”
Many more excited expressions of this condition are abundant in religious literature and James mentions that he could easily weary us with their monotony. Yet here he provides us with one from Ms. Jonathan Edwards [abridged]:
“Last night was the sweetest night I ever had in my life … there seemed to be a constant flowing and reflowing of heavenly love and I appeared to myself to float or swim, in the bright sweet beams. I think that what I felt each minute was worth more than all the outward comfort and pleasure which I had enjoyed in the whole of my life put together. It was a sweetness within which my soul was lost. There seemed to be little difference whether I was asleep or awake but, if there was a difference, the sweetness was greatest while I was asleep.” She goes on to say, “The resignation, the glory of God which seemed to swallow me up, in its clearness and brightness lasted the rest of the night, and all the next day, and on Monday without interruption or abatement.”
Let me now pass next to the Charity and Brotherly Love which are the usual fine results of saintliness and have been recognized as essential theological virtues, states James. Brotherly love is the notion of our brotherhood as being an immediate inference from that of God’s fatherhood of us all. He continues, When Christ utters the precepts: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which use and persecute you.” He gives, for a reason: “That you may be the children of your Father in Heaven; for he makes the Sun rise on the evil and the good alike, and sends the rain on the just and on the unjust alike.” [Here I used contemporary parlance; the quotes are not exact. Regardless, what is expressed is unchanged]. James tells us that these expressions are not mere derivatives of Christian theism, that we find them as well in Stoicism, Hinduism and in Buddhism and in the highest possible degree.
Religious rapture, moral enthusiasm, ontological [the study of the nature of existence] wonder, are all unifying states of mind in which the sand and grit of selfhood are inclined to disappear and tenderness to rule instead. The best thing to describe the condition, integrally, is as a characteristic of which our nature is subject; a region in which we find ourselves at home; in a sea in which we all swim, so to speak. It is an attempt to not pretend to explain [the state of rapture, of being enveloped by the whole] in words its “parts” by deriving them too cleverly from one another.
Like love or fear, the faith-state is a natural psychic complex and carries charity with it by natural consequence. In the saintly life, along with the happiness, this increase of tenderness is often noted in narratives of conversion. “I began to work for others,” “I had more tender feelings for my family and friends,” “I spoke at once to a person with whom I had been angry,” “I felt everyone to be my friend” – these are but a few of the so many expressions from the records collected by Professor Starbuck.
Here he gives us an example of Christian non-resistance from Richard Weaver’s autobiography: “I was walking and found a boy crying because a fellow workman was trying to take his wagon from him by force. I said to him, ‘Tom, you mustn’t take that wagon’ and the boy left after which he replied, ‘I’ve got a good mind to smack thee on the face.’ Weaver then responded, ‘Well, if that will do thee any good then thou can do so.’ Which he did and this went on until Weaver was subject to several blows at which time Tom ceased, turned away and cursed him as he walked away. Weaver shouted after him; ‘The lord forgive thee, for I do, and thus the Lord save thee.’ When Weaver returned home and his wife saw his face and asked what the matter with it was. Weaver replied: ‘I’ve been fighting and I’ve given a man a good thrashing.’ She burst out weeping and then I told her all about it and she thanked the Lord that I had not struck back.” He then writes, “The Lord had struck and His blows have more effect than any man’s.” When Monday came and Weaver arrived at work he was surprised to see Tom waiting for him. When the two met Tom burst into tears and said: ‘Richard, will you forgive me for striking you?’ I extended my hand in friendship and afterwards, together, we each went to our work.”
Such an account, suggests James, makes one ask the question: Can there be, in general, a level of emotion so unifying, so obliterative of differences between man and man, that even enmity may come to be an irrelevant circumstance and thus fail to inhibit the friendlier interests aroused? If such positive well-wishing were to attain so supreme a degree, those whom are genuinely motivated by it may well seem as superhuman beings. Buddhist examples are legendary. Should, per se, such lives be less morally discrete from the lives of most ordinary men – what effects might there then be? They might conceivably transform the world, posits James.
Love your enemies! if radically followed, it would involve such a breach within our own instinctive springs of action and as a whole (the present world’s governments’ reactions especially) that a critical point would practically be thus passed and we should then be born into another kingdom of being. Religious emotion make us feel that, that other kingdom to be close at hand, within our reach.
Changes of heart are not limited in their affections towards men, but animals too. Here James quotes Towianski, an Eminent Polish patriot and mystic. One day a friend met him in the rain caressing a big dog which was jumping all over him and covering him horribly with mud. On being asked why he permitted the animal to dirty his clothes Towianski replied: “This dog, whom I am now meeting for the first time, has shown a great fellow feeling for me and a great joy in my recognition and acceptance of his greetings. Were I to drive him off, I should wound his feelings and do him moral injury. It would be an offense not only to him, but to all the spirits of the other world who are on the same level with him. The damage which he does to my coat is nothing in comparison with the wrong which I should inflict upon him were I to remain indifferent to the manifestations of his friendship. We ought both to lighten the condition of animals, whenever we can, and at the same time facilitate in ourselves that union of the world of all spirits which the sacrifice of Christ made possible.”
Asceticism plays its part and, along with charity, we find humility; the desire to disclaim distinction and to instead grovel on the common level before God. James mentions too that the nursing of the sick is a function to which the religious seem strongly drawn. He cites examples such as Francis of Assisi kissing his lepers. Also too, Margaret Mary Alacoque, and St. John of God, amongst others, are said to have cleansed the sores and ulcers of their patients with their respective tongues [there goes my lunch]. And, the lives of such saints as Elizabeth of Hungary and Madame de Chantal are full of a sort of reveling in hospital purulence, disagreeable to read of James admits [and writes of little else on the topic, thankfully].
A paradise of inward tranquility seems to be faith’s usual result, suggests James. That no matter what one’s difficulties at the moment may appear to be, one’s life as a whole is in the keeping of a greater power whom one can absolutely trust. In deeply religious men the abandonment of the self to this power is passionate. Whosoever not only says, but feels, “God’s will be done” ameliorates every weakness and the whole historic array of martyrs, missionaries, and religious reformers is there to prove the consequent tranquil mindedness which self-surrender brings under otherwise naturally agitating or distressing circumstances.
James also mentions the emotions brought about by danger which religious enthusiasm produces may be even more buoyant still. He cites an example from what he refers to as a charming autobiography, “With Christ at Sea,” by Frank Bullen:
“It was blowing stiffly and we were carrying a press of canvas to get north out of the bad weather. Shortly after four bells we hauled down the flying jib and I sprang out astride the boom to furl it. I was sitting astride the boom when suddenly it gave way with me. The sail slipped through my fingers and I fell backwards hanging head downwards over the seething tumult of shining foam under the ship’s bows, suspended by one foot. But, I felt only high exultation in my certainty of eternal life. And, although death was divided from me by a hair’s breath and I was acutely conscious of the fact, it gave me no sensation but joy. I suppose I could have hung there no longer than five seconds, but in that time I lived a whole age of delight. But, my body asserted itself, and with a desperate gymnastic effort I regained the boom. How I furled the sail, I do not know. But, I sang at the utmost pitch of my voice praises to God that went pealing out over the dark waste of the waters.”
The annals of martyrdom are, of course, the signal field of triumph for religious imperturbability. Here James cites as an example the statement of a female humble sufferer, Blanche Gamond, persecuted as a Huguenot under Louis XIV:
“They shut all the doors and I saw six women each with a bunch of willow rods as thick as the hand could hold and a yard long. The order was given for me to undress myself, which I did. I was naked from the waist up. They brought a cord with which they tightly tied me to a beam. They then asked me, ‘does it hurt you?’ and they then discharged their fury upon me exclaiming as they struck, ‘Pray now to your God.’ It was the Roulette woman who said this. But, at this moment, I received the greatest consolation I have ever received in my life since I had the honor of being whipped for the name of Christ. Why can I not write down the inconceivable consolations and peace which I felt interiorly? To understand them one must have passed by the same trial. For where there are afflictions in abundance, grace is given superabundantly. In vain the women cried, ‘We must double our blows, she does not feel them for she neither speaks nor cries.’ And how should I have cried, since I was swooning with happiness within?”
L.T. – Girl’s night out.
The transition from tenseness, self-responsibility, and worry, to equanimity, receptivity, and peace is the most wonderful of all those shiftings of inner equilibrium; those changes of the personal center of energy, which I have analyzed so often, says James. And, the chief wonder of it is that it so often comes about, not by doing but by simply relaxing and throwing the burden down. This abandonment of self-responsibility seems to be the fundamental act in specifically religious (as distinguished from moral) practice.
Christians who have it strongly live in what is called “recollection.” And are never anxious about the future, nor worry over the outcome of the day. Of Saint Catharine of Genoa it is said that “She took cognizance of things, only as they were presented to her in succession, moment by moment. To her holy soul, “the divine moment was the present moment.” James goes on to state that, for example, Hinduism, mind-cure, and theosophy all lay great emphasis upon this concentration of the consciousness upon the moment at hand.
The next religious symptom which James notes is what he has termed, Purity of Life. That being that whatever is unspiritual ‘taints the pure waters of the soul’ and is thus repugnant. Here he cites another example of an individual whose religion cured him of his addiction to tobacco. [Since I have already cited a similar example, I shall pass on this one for the sake of brevity].
James next directs our attention to the early Christians, whom he states had hard battles to wage against the insincerity and impurity of the ecclesiastical Christianity of their time. Yet, the battle that cost them the most wounds was probably that which they fought in defense of their own rights to social veracities and sincerities. For example, the doffing [removing] of the hat regarding which George Fox (the founder of the Quaker faith we recall) wrote in his journal:
“When the Lord sent me into the world he forbade me to put off my hat to anyone, high or low.” To Fox, that and other conventional customs, such as giving titles of respect and bowing at the knee or the waist in salutation, were a lie and a sham and, the whole body of his followers renounced them as a sacrifice to truth. Fox further writes … “Oh! the scorn, heat, and fury that arose! Oh! the blows, punchings, beatings, and imprisonments that we endured for not putting off our hats to men! The bad language and evil usage we received on this account is hard to express – besides the danger we were sometimes in of losing our lives over this matter. And, by those [so-called] great professors of Christianity who thereby we discovered were not, after all, true believers! And, although it was but a small thing in the eye of man, yet what a wonderful confusion it brought among all the professors and priests! But, blessed be the Lord, many came to see the vanity of that custom of putting off hats to men and felt the weight of Truth’s testimony against it.”
An early follower of the Quaker faith, Thomas Elwood, who was at one time a secretary to John Milton, professes in his autobiography: “These and many more evil customs which had sprung up in the night of darkness and general apostasy from the truth and true religion, I now, by the inshining of this pure ray of divine light in my conscience, gradually discoved what I ought to cease from, to shun, and stand as a witness against.”
John Milton – (1608 – 1674) was an English poet, polemicist, man of letters and a civil servant under Oliver Cromwell. He is regarded as one of the preeminent writers in the English language. Milton spoke eleven languages: English, Latin, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, Aramaic, Syriac and Hebrew. He is best known for his epic poem, “Paradise Lost.”
James postulates on the nature of asceticism in its variances and degrees of expressions. For example, he states that asceticism may be merely an expression of hardiness disgusted with too much ease or, temperance in meat and drink, simplicity of apparel, chastity, and non-pampering of the body. Perhaps too asceticism is a testimony of the love of purity by one otherwise shocked by what is generally savored by the sensual. Or, more dramatically, ascetic mortifications and torments may be due to pessimistic feelings about the self combined with theological beliefs; the devotee may feel that he is escaping worse sufferings in the hereafter by doing penance now. Or, in psychopathic persons, it may be entered on morbidly by a sort of obsession or fixed idea which must be worked off in an attempt to get one’s interior consciousness feeling right again. Finally, he adds, in rarer instances, ascetic exercises may be prompted by genuine perversions of the bodily senses where painful stimuli are actually felt as pleasures.
Next James surmises that a moral transformation had swept over the western world during the past century [the 19th century given his time frame]. He says that men are no longer called on to face physical pain with equanimity and, that a man should neither endure nor inflict much of it. The result of this alteration, claims James, is that even in the Mother Church herself, where ascetic discipline had such a fixed tradition of prestige as a factor of merit, it has largely come into obsolescence and discredit. A believer who flagellates or macerates himself arouses instead a sense of repulsion rather than emulation. Any tendency to pursue the hard and painful for their own sakes might well strike one as purely abnormal. Nevertheless, James attests, it is natural and even typical for humankind to court the arduous in moderate degrees.
There are those men and women who can live on smiles and the word “yes” forever, James suggests. But, for others (indeed for most) this is too tepid and relaxed a moral climate. Passive happiness is considered slack and insipid and soon grows mawkish and intolerable to be around. Rather, some austerity and wintry negativity, some roughness, danger, stringency and effort, some “no! no!” must be mixed in to produce the sense of an existence with character, and texture, and power. The range of individual differences in this respect is enormous. But, whatever the mixture of yeses and noes may be, the individual is infallibly aware when he has struck it in the right proportion for him. One thinks: here I find the degree of equilibrium, safety, calm, and leisure which I need or, here I find the challenge, passion, fight and hardship without which my soul’s energy expires.
L.T. – James begins citing some examples beginning with agnostic lower grades of asceticism to more severe religious ascetic practice and here I must warn the reader they grow increasingly horrible, rather horrific even, and I have no idea how I am going to handle that portion of the book.
He starts off by sharing with us a statement from one of his correspondents, an agnostic: “Often at night in my warm bed I would feel ashamed to depend so on the warmth, and whenever the thought would come over me I would have to get up, no matter what time of night it was, and stand for a minute in the cold, just so as to prove my manhood.”
Another from Professor Starbuck’s files: “I practiced fasting and mortification of the flesh. I secretly made burlap shirts and put the burrs next to the skin and wore shoes with pebbles in them. I would spend nights flat on my back on the floor without any covering.”
James informs us that the Roman Church has organized and codified much of this sort of thing and also, had given it a market value, so to speak, in the form of “merits.”
Next we read of a Mr. Channing, when he first settles in as a Unitarian minister. It is not really all that interesting of an account other than to note his being incapable of any form of self-indulgence. His brother describes his dark and dreary room, his plain and worn out clothing, uncomfortable bedding, unheated room and stark furnishings.
Then next James mentions an account of a Methodist preacher, John Cennick who in 1735 was convicted of sin (he doesn’t say what the sin was or anything else about it):
“At once he quit singing, card playing, and attending theaters. He began praying nine times a day. Fancying dry bread too great an indulgence for so great a sinner as he and he began to feed on raw potatoes, acorns, crabs and grass and often wished he could live on just roots and herbs instead. At length, in 1737, he found peace with God and, once again, went on his way, rejoicing.”
He then introduces us to a French country priest, Monseigneur Vianney: “On this path,” M. Vianney said, “there is in mortification a balm and a savor without which one cannot live when once one has made their acquaintance with it. There is but one way in which to give one’s self to God – that is to give of one’s self entirely and to keep nothing. The little that one keeps should only be to further trouble oneself and make one suffer more.” Accordingly, he imposed it upon himself that he should never smell a flower, drink when parched, never drive away a fly, never complain of anything, never sit down, never lean upon his elbows when kneeling, and so on. During a particularly severe winter one of his missionaries contrived a false floor to his confessional and placed a metal container of hot water beneath. The trick succeeded and the Saint was deceived claiming with heartfelt emotion that “God is very good. This year throughout the cold winter my feet have always been warm.”
The New England Puritan divine, Cotton Mather, is generally reputed to be a rather loathsome figure historically [my words – James referred to him as a “grotesque pendant” which a friend told me was a better description]. Yet, James ponders, what could be more touching than Mather’s relating what happened when his wife came to die:
“When I saw to what a point of resignation I was now called of the Lord, I resolved, with His help, therein to glorify Him. So, for two hours before my lovely consort expired, I kneeled by her bedside and took into my two hands a dear hand, the dearest in the world. With her thus in my hands, I solemnly and sincerely gave her up unto the Lord; and in token of my real Resignation, I gently put her out of my hands and laid away a most lovely hand, resolving that I would touch it never more. This was the hardest, and perhaps the bravest action that ever I did. She … told me that she signed and sealed my act of resignation. And, although before that she call for me continually, after this she never asked for me anymore.”
Cotton Mather (1663 – 1728) was a socially and politically influential Puritan minister, prolific author and pamphleteer. He descended from New England’s two most influential families. Both his grandfathers, John Cotton and Richard Mather, were considered as “Moses-like” figures during the exodus of English Puritans to America. His father, Increase Mather, was President of Harvard when Cotton received his MA degree there at 18 years of age. A precocious intellect, at age eleven, Mather is the youngest person ever to be admitted into Harvard.
A Calvinist, Cotton Mather combined mystical recognition of an invisible spiritual world along with his scientific interests and, his scientific pursuits led to his acceptance into the Royal Society of London. A smallpox epidemic struck Boston in 1721. His African slave had explained to Mather how he had been inoculated as a child in Africa. The practice was an ancient one and this fascinated Mather who partnered with Doctor Boylston in the hopes of ceasing the spread of the disease through inoculation. The inoculations led to a bitter controversy including Dr. Boylston being accused of murder and a grenade being tossed into Mather’s home.
Critics of Cotton Mather assert that he caused the Salem Witch Trial because of his publication “Remarkable Providence” whipping up witch hunting zeal and again, a second time, his attempts to revive the trial with his later book “Wonders of the Invisible World.” Critical evidence of Mather’s fanatical behavior was due to the trial and execution of George Burroughs (Harvard class of 1670) where Mather declared that Mr. Burroughs’ apparent innocence and verbal eloquence was due to the deceit of the devil. Mather was never repentant for his role in the witch hunts; only he and one other involved in the trial refused to admit guilt. Mather’s book “Wonders of the Invisible World” appeared at the same time as his father’s book, “Case of Conscience” a book critical of the trial. Increase Mather publicly burned his son’s book in Harvard Yard.
Source: New World Encyclopedia
Saint John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic who flourished – or rather existed, for there is little to suggest anything flourishing about him – in the sixteenth century will supply a passage [much abridged] suitable for our purpose, says James:
“The radical remedy lies in the mortification of the four great natural passions: joy, hope, fear, and grief. You must seek to deprive these of every satisfaction and leave them as it were in darkness and the void. Let your soul therefore turn always: Not to what is most easy, but to what is hardest; Not to what tastes best, but to what is most distasteful; Not to what most pleases, but to what disgusts; Not to matters of consolation, but to matters for desolation; Not to rest but to labor; and so on …”
He continues along these lines: “To be all things, be willing to be nothing; To get to where you have no taste for anything, go through whatever experiences you have no taste for; To learn to know nothing, go whither you are ignorant; To reach what you possess not, go whithersoever you own nothing; To be what you are not, experience what you are not.”
The later [to be so as not to be] verse, to be what you are not, experience what you are not, plays with that vertigo of self-contradiction which is so dear to mysticism, James informs. Those that come next are completely mystical, for in them Saint John passes from God to the more metaphysical notion of the ‘All’ :
“When you stop at one thing, you cease to open yourself to the All. For to come to the All you must give up the All. And if you should attain to owning the All, you must own it, desiring Nothing.”
Here James provides us with a passage that he describes as an extreme example to which a psychopathic individual may go in the line of bodily austerity. He quotes what he refers to as the “sincere Suso’s” account of his own self-tortures. Suso is a fourteenth century German mystic; his autobiography is written in the third person and is considered a classic religious document.
L. T. – This part of James’ book troubled me considerably; I could barely read it. If it is true, if this man actually engaged in the degree of self-torture described in the next 3.5 pages of the book [James had not before dedicated nearly so much of his book to a singular account as he did this one] then I cannot imagine how the man survived the 24 years thus described; or even a quarter as many. Or, is this account something like what occurred when I made the mistake of asking my seven year old twin nephews to describe what their dreams were like to me. One immediately embarked on the most horrific description of a nightmare he could conjure up on the spot (heads rolling down hills, rivers of blood, the whole business). Then, the other twin, not wanting to be outdone by his brother, told his tale of a gruesome nightmare he supposedly had including, not just more and worse horrors, but repulsive and vulgar qualities as well. The twins alternately took their turns in this way for some time intending not only to outdo one another but, more importantly, to thoroughly and decidedly shock and appall Aunt Leslie.
In this brief paragraph I will here acknowledge but a few of James’ descriptions of Suso’s self-inflicted sufferings which consisted of, but not limited to, subjecting himself to the gnawings of vile insects, leather gloves with sharp pointed brass tacks facing inside, the wearing of hair shirts and undergarments, straps with sharp tacks imbedded in them which he strapped to his breast tearing his flesh leaving open leaving festering wounds, an undergarment which he devised with a hundred and fifty brass nails, filed sharp, always pointing toward the flesh, and so on.
Suso writes in his autobiography titled “The Life of the Blessed Henry Suso” : “He [recall Suso is writing in the third person] continued these [briefly described above] tormenting exercises for about sixteen years. At the end of this time, when his blood was now chilled and the fire of his temperament destroyed, there appeared to him in a vision a messenger from Heaven who told him that God required this of him no longer. Whereupon he discontinued it, and threw all these things away into a running stream.”
James reports from there that Suso then tells how, in order to emulate the sorrows of his crucified Lord, he made himself a cross with thirty protruding iron needles and nails. This he bore on his bare back between his shoulders day and night. Then next he tells of his penitences by means of striking this cross and forcing the nails deeper into the flesh, and likewise of his self-scourgings – a dreadful story.
Back to Suso’s own accounts: “In winter he suffered very much from the frost. If he stretched out his feet they lay bare on the floor and froze. If he gathered them up the blood became all on fire in his legs and this was great pain. His feet were full of sores, his legs dropsical, his knees bloody and seared, his body wasted, his mouth parched with intense thirst and his hands tremulous from weakness.”
James next tells us that he will spare us the recital of Suso’s self-inflicted miseries from thirst. He then goes on to say that it is pleasant to know that after Suso’s fortieth year, God showed him, by a series of visions, that he had sufficiently broken down the natural man and that he might leave these exercises off. The case is distinctly pathological, the author informs us.
L.T. – It is not just little boys and grown men that indulge in these, real or imagined, sorts of activities, Let us not forget Blanche, the roulette woman, and the rest of the girls and, here too, James reports of another woman possessed of similar psychological qualities, the founder of the Sacred Heart Order:
“Her love of pain and suffering was insatiable. She said that she could cheerfully live till the Day of Judgment provided she might always have matter for suffering for God; that to live a single day without suffering would be intolerable. She said again and again that she was devoured with two unassuageable fevers, one for the Holy Communion, the other for suffering, humiliation, and annihilation. ‘Nothing but pain,’ she continually said in her letters, ‘makes my life supportable’.”
So much for the phenomena to which the ascetic [if not outright masochistic] impulse will, in certain persons, give rise, states James.
We now turn to the subject of obedience. James states that the secular life of our twentieth century opens with this virtue held in no high esteem. Rather it is the duty of the individual to determine their own conduct and profit, or suffer, by the consequences that seems to be one of our best rooted contemporary social ideals. So much so that it is difficult, even imaginatively, to comprehend how men possessed of an inner life of their own could ever have come to think that the subjection of one’s will to that of another, or other finite creatures, at all recommendable. James confesses that, to him, this is something of a mystery. Yet, it evidently corresponds to a profound interior need of many persons and we must therefore do our best to understand it.
James posits that obedience may spring from the general religious phenomenon of inner softening and self-surrender and the throwing of one’s self on higher powers. So saving are these attitudes felt to be, that in themselves, apart from utility, they become ideally consecrated. And, in obeying another whose fallibility is quite apparent, the subservient individual may feel much as they do when resigning their will to that of infinite wisdom. Add to that, self-despair and the religious passion of self-crucifixion, and obedience, then becomes an ascetic sacrifice agreeable to such a personality irrespective of whatever sensible uses it may or may not have.
It is a sacrifice, a mode of mortification [or degradation] that obedience is primarily conceived by Catholic writers as a, “… sacrifice which a man offers to God, and of which he is himself both the priest and the victim: By poverty he immolates his exterior possessions; by chastity he immolates his body; by obedience he completes the sacrifice and gives to God all that he yet holds as his own, his two most precious goods, his intellect and his will.” [I italicize that portion because I intend to return to it later].
“One of the great consolations of the monastic life,” James quotes a Jesuit authority, “is the assurance we have that in obeying we can commit no fault. The superior may commit a fault in commanding you to do this thing or that, but you are certain that you commit no fault so long as you obey. Because, God will only ask you if you have duly performed what orders you received, and if you can furnish a clear account in that respect, you are absolved entirely. So as Saint Jerome well exclaimed in celebrating the advantages of obedience, ‘Oh, sovereign liberty! Oh, holy and blessed security by which one becomes almost impeccable’!”
One can easily see here how atrocities may well be or have been committed under such a system of belief. The late, M. Scott Peck, M.D., in his book “People of the Lie” (a courageous yet controversial work about evil; in an attempt to identify, qualify and cure humanity of) addresses this very point.
James notes at the bottom of the page [pg. 306 in his book], “the holocaust simile goes back at least as far as Ignatius Loyola” whom he next turns our attention to:
“I ought,” an early biographer reports of Ignatius Loyola as saying, “on entering religion, to desire that my superior should oblige me to give up my own judgment, and conquer my own mind. I ought to set up no difference between one superior and another, but recognize them all as equal before God, whose place they fill. For, if I distinguish persons, I weaken the spirit of obedience. In the hands of my superior, I must be a soft wax, a thing, from which he is to require whatever pleases him, be it to write or to receive letters, to speak or not to speak to such a person. And, I must put all my fervor in executing zealously and exactly what I am ordered. I must consider myself as a corpse which has neither intelligence nor will; be like a mass of matter which, without resistance, lets itself be placed where it may please anyone. So, must I be under the hands of the Order, to serve it in the way it judges most useful. I must consider nothing as belonging to me personally, and in regards to the things I use; I must be like a statue which lets itself be stripped and never opposes resistance.”
L.T. – I italicize this [above] portion of James’ text [not my commentary] to further consider the message here given and will, more specifically, comment further on a bit later in this piece. For, there are today organizations, specifically criminal (the mafia) in the case I am to refer to, that cruelly impose this mental state of dispirited obedience upon others against their knowledge and will and it is not at all unreasonable to consider this practice rather wide-spread. One can look up “gang stalking,” for example, online and find a great deal of information. I’ve been dealing with and resisting these repulsive criminals for 10 years now. It’s not easy. They will not quit and I will not cease resisting and reporting of what I know to law enforcement officials. For, I’d rather be dead than a member of their criminal organization thus contribute further to their corrupt and deadly activities. Their methodology and mindset are the same as the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan both of which did collapse, and most horribly for them .
Our next topic shall be poverty, James exclaims, and gives us a page [which I have much abridged] from a book by the Jesuit Alfonzo Rodriguez. He is writing instructions for monks of his own order:
“If any one of you will know whether or not he is really poor in spirit, let him consider whether he loves the ordinary consequences and effects of poverty, which are hunger, thirst, cold, fatigue, and the denudation [deprivation] of all conveniences. See if you are glad to wear a worn-out habit full of patches. See if you are glad when something is lacking in your meal, when you are passed by in serving it, when what you receive is distasteful to you, when your cell is out of repair. If you are not glad of these things, if instead of loving these [deprivations, discomforts, etc.] you avoid them, then there is proof that you have not attained the perfection of poverty of spirit.” Rodriguez then goes on to describe the practice of poverty in more detail citing Saint Ignatius, ‘Let no one use anything as if it were his private possession’.”
“… and this is why our holy founder” writes Rodriguez, “wished the superiors to test their monks somewhat as God tested Abraham, and put their poverty and their obedience to trial, that by these means they may become acquainted with the degree of their virtue and gain a chance to make ever farther progress in their perfection.” “… making the one move out of his room when he finds it comfortable and is attached to it; taking away from another a book of which he is fond; or obliging a third to exchange his garment for a worse one.” And, adding to that, “Among the various good reasons why the order forbids secular persons to enter our cells, the principal one is that thus we may more easily be kept in poverty. After all, we are all men [human], and if we were to receive people of the [outside] world into our rooms, we should not have the strength to remain within the bounds prescribed.”
L.T. – Some of the tactics, described by James above, which the religious converts willingly subjected themselves to, would, to most of us, seem to be an irrational choice. But, it was their choice. To have read of these operations, further elucidates that which I experienced from approximately the year 2006 to the present. That being my having been relentlessly, mentally and physically menaced by members of organized crime in Boulder, Colorado (as has been reported of throughout this website). And, as I have also already stated, I had no idea what was going on. For, I had never before heard of such tactics and knew very little about the mafia other than they existed; I never gave them a thought. But, over time, I began to suspect that, as I have already stated, it was their intent to forcibly recruit me.
They utilize fear mostly (in the form of threats along with a hostile disposition towards me). But also would respond to any ordinary statement I would make as though what I had said was insane or completely stupid thus worthy of being yelled at in response (all quite irrational). That, along with undermining any endeavor or intention I may have had for the furthering of my life, either professionally or personally, by constant disruptions in the form of break-ins into my workspace, my home, mailbox, and car wreaking all kinds of havoc (thefts, destruction of property, food poisoning, etc.); sometimes minor and sometimes quite expensive and sometimes potentially deadly. I was surrounded by them; they could easily know when I was home and if not where else I might be for I was downtown within walking distance of just about anywhere I might choose to go. It has become impossible to live a normal life.
Being isolated, in general, for it is isolating (which is one of the objectives) the only human contact I had, mostly, would be at a local bar where I would occasionally be encountered by these hostile males (those whom I considered were somehow affiliated with these criminals – they seemed to have a collective persona, a group think mentality; manipulative, irrational, and threatening). At one point, in a bar, I was drugged and it was amazing I made it home without crashing my car harming myself and perhaps others (this is reported of officially). I was driving when the effects of the drug suddenly hit. And while I have never before felt such effects, I knew instantly what had happened. It took all my mental powers available to me to get my arms to turn the steering wheel. Fortunately I was a very short distance from my home when the drug hit. There’s more, far more, including an incident where I realized I had been hypnotized (this too has been officially reported).
These criminals would tell the police that I was the dangerous and irrational person and, from what I can tell, the police were all too eager to believe this. Or, worse yet, and I think most likely the case, the police (some of them anyway) intentionally contributed further to this impression of me. Here is an account of an incident involving the police that occurred one evening at the local library (without going into a lot of detail): I was in a bit of a rush, for I was running late to meet somebody. As I entered through one of the two library entrances, the entrance leading to the large open area of the library used as an art gallery, to pick-up a book being held for me, approximately six police officers defensively formed a semi-circle facing me. No one else was entering through those doors but me; in fact, being as it was evening, there were few others around. As I passed between and through them one female officer reached for her gun! What did they think I was going to do? I was picking-up a library book! It happened so quickly and was so surreal and unnecessary it took me a while to comprehend the situation. Otherwise I would have instantly turned around and forgotten about the book altogether rather than walk through them.
There were many, many other incidents involving several others in the community (not just those in my immediate neighborhood) that participated in my harassment. I can only surmise that members of this criminal organization, and others associated with them in some way, are widespread throughout this community.
Here’s another example; it is quite unbelievable: Early on, following the purchase of the condominium, I discovered how negligent and difficult to work with the Home Owners Association management company was. (I knew little at the time about the nature and danger of my circumstance for the menacing hadn’t yet fully begun). The company, my neighbors, besides being an HOA management company, are a real estate sales company , a rental property management company, and a property development company. In my neighborhood regular building and grounds maintenance along with other concerns were being neglected (for example, the garbage collection ceased for bill payment was quite delinquent and the HOA financial statements were improperly kept, etc.). Someone suggested to me that I contact the local District Attorney’s office for help for, as I was told, they have a department that specializes in consumer affairs. I did this and told the woman in charge of consumer affairs how I could not get any cooperation from the HOA management company where I owned a property. We had never before had any contact and I do not see how she could have possibly known me. Once I finished describing the difficulties I was experiencing she responded saying that she knew, and was friends with, the president of the HOA and owner of the real estate company (same person) and went on to suggest, “He just needs to feel like a big man and I think you know how to do that.” I kid you not! I suspect she knew the history of the property and assumed I was a prostitute.
The part that is truly insidious about all this, and the part I cannot get over, is this: These people (this property development, real estate and property management company managed, (according to their website during the time I owned the condominium next door to them) 1,600 student housing units in Denver and Boulder. They had offices in the immediate vicinity of both the University of Colorado in Boulder and Denver campuses. Recall that I am claiming, and have stated repeatedly on other pages on this website, that they are members of organized crime involved in prostitution and pornography production and that the tactics they were utilizing on me to break me psychologically to forcibly recruit me are well known amongst law enforcement professionals.
As I have stated before I have officially reported all of this.
Back to the book:
James here refers to the Hindu fakirs, Buddhist monks and Mohammedan dervishes stating that they unite with Jesuits and Franciscans in idealizing poverty as the loftiest of individual states. He then suggests that the opposition between the men who have and the men who are is longstanding, immemorial. The gentleman, in the old fashion sense of the man, the one who is well born, has usually been predaceous and has reveled in lands and goods. Yet, he has never identified his essence with these possessions, but rather with personal superiorities: courage, generosity, and pride are supposed to be his birthright. To certain kinds of huckstering, he thanked God he was forever inaccessible. And, if in life’s vicissitudes should he become destitute, he was glad to think that with his sheer valor he was all the freer to work out his salvation. This idea of the well born man without possessions was embodied in knight-errantry and templardom and (though hideously corrupted as it has always been) it still dominates sentimentally, if not practically, the military and aristocratic view of life. We glorify the soldier as the man absolutely unencumbered. Owning nothing but his bare life, and willing to toss that up at a moment’s notice once the cause commands him.
The laborer who pays with his person day by day, like the savage he may make his bed wherever his right arm can support him. And from his simple and athletic attitude and observations, the property owner seems buried and smothered in ignoble externalities and encumbrances; “wading in straw and rubbish up to his knees.” And, the claims which things make are corrupters of manhood, mortgages on the soul, and a drag anchor on one’s progress towards the empyrean [the highest reaches of heaven].
James here quotes George Whitefield: “Lord Jesus, help me to do or suffer thy will. When thou seest me in danger of nesting – in pity – in tender pity – put a thorn in my nest to prevent me from it.” James here posits that the loathing of “capital” which the laboring classes today [his time frame] are growing more and more afflicted with what seems largely composed of a sentiment of antipathy for lives based on mere having. Only those who have no personal financial interests can follow an ideal straight away. Sloth and cowardice creep in with every dollar we have to guard.
James then asserts that beyond this more worthy athletic attitude involved in doing and being, there is in the desire of not having, something profounder still, something related to the fundamental mystery of religious experience: the satisfaction found in absolute surrender to the larger power. That so long as any secular safeguard is retained, so long as any residual prudential guarantee is clung to, so long then is the surrender incomplete. The vital crisis is not passed and fear still stands sentinel and mistrust of the divine withstands.
Accordingly, throughout the annals of the saintly life, we find this ever-recurring note: Fling yourself upon God’s providence without making any reserve whatsoever – take no thought for the morrow – sell all you have and give it to the poor – only when the sacrifice is ruthless and reckless will the higher safety truly arrive. As a concrete example James gives us an excerpt from the biography of Antoinette Bourignon while a young girl living in her father’s house [I have, up to this point mostly, not always, used italicized writing to indicate my input. But here it appears in the Bourignon’s biography and thus in James’ text as denoting the word of God]:
“She spent whole nights in prayer, oft repeating: ‘Lord what wilt thou have me to do?’ And one night, being in a most profound penitence she heard as if another had spoken within her: Forsake all earthly things. Separate thyself from the love of the creatures. Deny thyself. Astonished, she mused long on these three points thinking how she could fulfill them. For, she thought she could not live without earthly things, nor without loving the creatures, nor without loving herself. Yet, she said, ‘By thy Grace I will do it Lord.’ Having then thought of being shut up in a religious cloister she asked leave of her father to enter into the cloister of the Barefoot Carmelites, but he would not permit this saying he’d rather see her lying in her grave. Nor would he give her any money to enter therin. This seemed to her a great cruelty, but she found out afterward that he knew the cloisters better than she. For, she then went to Father Laurens, the Director, and offered to serve in the monastery and work hard for her bread, and be content with little, if he would receive her. At this he smiled and said: ‘That cannot be. We must have money to build; we take no maids without money; you must find the way to get it else, there is no entry here’.”
“This astonished her greatly and she was thereby undeceived as to the cloisters. She then asked earnestly for God to tell her when she shall be perfectly thine? And she thought she heard him answer her, When thou shalt no longer possess anything and shalt die to thyself. She then asked, ‘And where shall I do that, Lord?’ He answered, In the desert. She resolved to secretly lay aside her maiden’s habit while her parents planned to have her married off; her father having promised her to a rich French merchant. She prevented the time [of the marriage] on Easter evening having cut her hair, put on the habit, slept a little then went out of her chamber around four in the morning taking nothing but one penny to buy bread for that day. And, it having been said to her in going out, Where is thy faith? In a penny? She threw it away begging pardon of God for her fault and saying, ‘No, Lord, my faith is not in a penny, but in thee alone.’ Thus she went away wholly delivered from the heavy burden of the cares and good things of this world, and found her soul so satisfied that she no longer wished for anything upon Earth, trusting entirely upon God.” James comments, the penny was a small financial safeguard of course, but an effective spiritual obstacle. Not till it was thrown away could the character settle into the new equilibrium completely.
He then ponders “Naked came I into the world,” etc., and whoever first said that understood the fundamental mystery of the religious experience. He next alludes to one, whom he refers to as a profound moralist, writing of Christ’s saying, “Sell all thou hast and follow me,” and the work continues as follows:
“Christ may have meant; If you love mankind absolutely you will, as a result, not care for any possessions whatever, and this seems a very likely proposition. But, it is one thing to believe that a proposition is probably true; it is another thing to see it as a fact. If you love mankind as Christ did you would see his conclusion as a fact. It would be obvious. You would sell you goods and they would be no loss to you. There are in every generation people who, beginning innocently, with no predetermined intention of becoming saints, find themselves drawn into the vortex by their interest in helping mankind, and by the understanding that comes from actually doing so. Thus, the whole question of the abandonment of luxury is not a question at all, but merely incidental to another question, namely the degree to which we abandon ourselves to the logic of our love for others.”
James concludes this chapter with these observations: Religious emotion obeys a logic of its own which no other logic can draw. Piety and charity live in a different universe from worldly lusts and fears and form another center of energy altogether. For example, a supreme sorrow may lessen more minor vexations – becoming consolations even; a supreme love may turn minor sacrifices into gains, and a supreme trust may render common safeguards unnecessary, odious even. And, in the glow of religious excitement it may appear impious to retain one’s hold of personal possessions.
Lectures XIV and XV – THE VALUE OF SAINTLINESS
James states that we have now passed in review the more significant phenomena which may be regarded as the fruits of genuine religion and the characteristics of men who are devout. We now have to ask whether the fruits in question can help us to judge the absolute value of religion to human life. With our fixed definitions of man, of man’s perfection and of our positive dogmas, or precepts, about God we can herby ascertain that man’s perfection would be the fulfillment of his end; and that end being his union with his Maker. And, that union could be pursued by him along three paths: active, pergative [purging, or cleansing], and contemplative.
James here reminds us that in the first lecture we but briefly addressed the empirical method, and confessed that, in our inquiry here, we cannot hope for the clean-cut and scholastic results generally acquired by such methodologies; for man cannot be divided sharply into an animal and a rational part. We cannot distinguish natural from supernatural effects; nor, amongst the latter, know which favors are of God and which are deceptions. We have merely to collect things together, and out of an aggregate of piecemeal judgments as to the value of this and that experience, decide that on the whole a particular type of religion is approved by its fruits and another type condemned.
“On the whole,” [or, whole thinking] so repugnant to your systematizer! James exclaims. Yet, how can one measure the fruits of a religion, in merely human assessments and terms, without considering first whether the God actually exists; He Whom is supposed to have inspired them in the first place? James considers, for example, should we condemn a religion of human or animal sacrifices we would then, due to our condemnation and our rejection, be tacitly assuming that the deity would therefore not exist; and then set up a religion of our own; as would a scholastic philosopher.
But, such common sense prejudices and instincts as these are themselves the fruits of a scientific empirical evolution, James postulates. Nothing is more striking than the secular [non-religious] alterations that makes their way, and has their effects, in the moral and religious aspects of men as their [scientific] insights into nature and their social and civil arrangements thus progressively develop. After an interval of but a few generations the mental climate thus proves unfavorable to notions of the deity which at an earlier date were perfectly satisfactory. In other words, the older gods have fallen below the common secular level, and cannot longer be believed in. Today, a deity who should require blood sacrifices to placate him would be too sanguinary [grisly] to be taken seriously. Even if powerful historical credentials were put forth in his favor, we would not consider them. Back then however, the deity’s cruel appetites were, of themselves, credentials. They positively recommended him to men’s imagination in ages when such coarse signs of power were respected and none other could be understood. Such deities were worshiped because such fruits were relished.
L.T. – “Fruits” is a word commonly used by James throughout his book. Although, as he uses it, it is foreign to our ears, and seems odd even, I can find no better word to replace it. For example: benefits, outcomes, results, etc., all seem like words describing circumstances depicted on a graph and therefore do not express the points here made with the same organic and lushness of quality that the word “fruits” does. Therefore, I’ve decided to leave the word as is throughout this abridged version.
So soon as the fruits began to seem quite worthless; so soon as they appeared childish, contemptible, or immoral when reflected on, they were erelong neglected and forgotten. It was in this way that the Greek and Roman Gods, for example, ceased to be believed in by educated pagans. Not only the cruelty, but the arbitrary nature and the paltriness of the gods believed in by earlier centuries tended to strike later generations with surprise. James contends that few historic changes are more curious than these mutations of theological opinion. He then goes on to acknowledge the monarchical type of deity sovereignty that was so emphatically planted in the minds of our own forefathers and that a dose of cruelty in their God seems to have been required by their imaginations. To them, [and to many still to this day it appears] the cruelty is a retributive justice without which the God would not seem “sovereign” enough [to adequately supremely rule over all].
James then considers that ritualist worship to the modern transcendentalist, as well as to the ultra-puritanical types of minds, are qualities of a deity of an almost absurdly childish character; taking delight in toy-shop furniture, tapers and tinsels, costumes, incoherent mumblings and so on. Yet, on the other hand, the formless spaciousness of the transcendental “All that Is” sects, for example, seems intolerably bald, bleak, and empty to those of more ritualistic natures.
Thus, we are here compelled, James suggests, regardless of our preconceived notions regarding empiricism, to employ some sort of a standard of religious probability if we are to assume to estimate, or measure, the fruits of other men’s religion. That part of us, judging and condemning those gods that thwarted the advancement of human experience, is the parent, so to speak, of our disbeliefs; those previous beliefs having become inconsistent with the experiential, the experimental, the scientific method. Thus the gods we come to stand by are the gods we need and can use; the gods whose demands on us are reinforcements of our demands on ourselves and on one another.
James goes on to state that religions have generally approved themselves and have ministered to various and assorted needs which they found locally prevailing. Yet, when they violated other needs too strongly, or when other faiths came about which served the same needs better, the earlier religions were thus supplanted. However, no religion, James professes, has ever been able to claim its prevalence to apodictic [authoritative, foolproof] certainty.
What James here proposes to do, briefly stated, is to test saintliness, specifically, by common sense; to use human standards to help us decide how far the religious life commends itself as an ideal kind of human activity. If it commends itself, then any theological beliefs that may inspire it will stand as being of value. If not, then they will be discredited. It is but a process of the elimination of the humanly unfit, and the survival of the humanly fittest, applied to religious beliefs.
Recall James’ era, born in 1842, and of the depressing effects of Darwinism on religious persons, and society in general, around that time due to Charles Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species” published in 1859, and Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” philosophical treatise [translated] “The Joyful Pursuit of Knowledge and Understanding” published in 1882 as was reported in the first chapter of his book.
Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) was an English naturalist and geologist best known for his contributions to the scientific theory of evolution; that all species of life have descended from common ancestors resulting from a process that he referred to as “natural selection.” He published his theory of evolution citing compelling evidence in his book “On the Origin of Species.”
At the age of 16 Darwin enrolled at Edinburgh University (where James is giving these very lectures his book consists of). Two years later, being bored with the scholastic material and the sight of blood making him queasy and, being more interested in the study of natural history than medicine, Darwin became a student at Christ’s College in Cambridge. At Christ’s College his mentor, professor Henslow, recommended him for a naturalist’s position aboard the HMS Beagle. In 1831 the HMS Beagle launched its voyage around the world with Darwin aboard. Over the course of the trip he collected a variety of natural specimens: birds, plants and fossils. The Pacific Islands, the Galapagos Archipelago, were of particular interest to him.
The trip had a profound affect on Darwin’s view of natural history resulting in his revolutionary theory about the origin of living beings that was contrary to the popular view of naturalists at that time. He came to believe that species survived through a process called “natural selection” where species that successfully adapted to meet the changing requirements of their natural habitat thrived, while those that failed to evolve and reproduce died off.
Following a lifetime of devout research he died at his family home in London and was buried at Westminster Abbey. Over the course of the next century, DNA studies revealed evidence of his theory of evolution, although controversy surrounding its conflict with Creationism, the religious view that all of nature is born of God, still abounds today.
One word, says James, about the potential reproach we may be subjected to in following this sort of empirical method; that being that we are handing ourselves over to systematic skepticism [skeptics who claim that only those effects that are empirically observable, measurable, and repeatable are valid and useful]. He continues, it would be absurd to affirm that one’s own age of the world can be beyond correction by the next age. Skepticism cannot, therefore, be ruled out by any set of thinkers [spiritual or empiricist]. And yet, no empiricist ought to claim exemption from this universal liability either. However, to admit one’s liability to correction is one thing, and to embark upon a sea of wanton doubt is quite another. That said, of willfully playing into the hand of skepticism we cannot be accused.
Here’s a famous quote purportedly made by the physicist Lord Kelvin [cir. 1900], “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Then, in 1905, came Einstein’s theory of relativity. He also stated, “If you study science long enough and hard enough it will force you to believe in God.”
James here adds that the outward form of inalterable certainty is so precious to some minds that to renounce it explicitly is, for them, out of the question. They will claim it even as the facts before them patently pronounce its folly. The safe thing is surely to recognize that all the insights of a people, of a generation, must be provisional, transitional. The wisest of critics is an altering being, subject to the better insight of the morrow.
The fact of diverse judgments about religious phenomena is therefore entirely unescapable whatever may be one’s own desire to attain the irreversible, the permanent. But, apart from that fact, a more fundamental question arises: the question as to whether or not men’s opinions ought to be expected to be uniform in this field. Ought all men to have the same religion? Are they not so alike in their inner needs that, for the hard and soft, the proud and humble, the strenuous and the lazy, the healthy-minded and the despairing, the same religious incentives should be required? Or, should different religions be allotted to different types of man? It might conceivably be true that some may actually be better off with a religion of consolation and reassurance and others better off with one of terror and reproof. James states that he believes it shall seem more and more the case as we go along. And, he adds, if it be so, how can any judge or critic help but be biased in favor of the religion that best serves his own needs?
Here James admits how anarchic [without controlling rules or principles] much of what he says may appear by expressing himself thus, abstractly and briefly, and that he may seem to despair of the very notion of truth. He then requests of us that we withhold such judgements presently. Yet, he concedes, that he does not believe that we can attain, on any given day, absolutely resolute and unimprovable truths about such matters as those with which religions deal. Here the author claims to be no lover of disorder and doubt, but rather he is expressing a concern of the loss of truth due to pretensions to possess it wholly and prematurely. Whereas instead, we can gain more and more of it by always moving in the right direction. Till then, do not, pray you, he requests, harden your minds irrevocably against the empiricism which he professes.
James now announces that he will waste no more words in abstract justification of his method, but seek immediately to use it upon the facts.
The plain fact is that men’s minds are built, as has been often said, in water-tight compartments. And, being as they have many other things in them beside their religion, indubitably, unholy entanglements and associations inevitably obtain. Most of the baseness so commonly charged to religion’s account is not accountable at all to religion proper, but rather to religion’s wicked practical partner – the spirit of the [religious] corporate dominion. And, most of the bigotries are, in their turn, accountable to religion’s wicked intellectual partner – the spirit of dogmatic dominion. Here James cites some [I did not list them all] tragic examples: the stoning of Quakers, the murdering of Mormons, the massacring of Armenians [recall this book was published in 1901 otherwise he would probably include the extermination of Jews and others by the Nazi’s during the Holocaust]. He claims that these and other similar religious persecutions are in part due to that human inborn hatred of the incongruous, the unusual, the eccentric, and the non-conformist rather than an expression of a religious piety on the part of the perpetrators. Piety is the mask – the inner force is tribal instinct, James contends.
We should no more make piety responsible for past atrocities other than piety not availing itself enough to check such passions and, for sometimes supplying them with hypocritical pretexts. Yet, James asserts, when the passion gust has past, the pious may bring a reaction of repentance which the irreligious man would not necessarily have shown. And while many of these types of [aforementioned] historic aberrations have been attributed to religion, James argues, religion is not to blame. However, of the charges that over-zealousness, or fanaticism, are amongst its liabilities, we cannot acquit religion either. So here the author announces he shall remark on that point; but first, preface it by a preliminary remark which then connects itself with that which shall follow.
The author acknowledges that the phenomena of saintliness has probably produced in our minds an expression of extravagance. Is it necessary, some may be wondering as one example after another has come before us, to be quite so fantastically good as that? We who have no vocation for the extremer ranges of sanctity will surely be left off “on the last day” if our humility, asceticism and devoutness prove to be of a less convulsive sort. This amounts to saying that though there is much to admire in this field, nevertheless it need not be imitated. And, that religious phenomena, like all other human phenomena, are subject to the law of the golden mean.
Yet, we are glad they existed to show us that, and gladder still that there also are other ways of seeing and taking on life. Of course we are proud of a human nature that can be so passionately extreme but, at the same time, we shrink from advising others to follow the example. The conduct we blame ourselves for not following lies nearer to the middle line of human effort, James alleges.
He further states that strong affections need a strong will; strong active powers need a strong intellect; strong intellects need strong sympathies, to keep life steady. And, if the balance is thus maintained then no one faculty can possibly be too strong – we only get the stronger all around character. James then professes, in the life of saints, the spiritual faculties are strong, but what gives the impression of extravagance proves, usually upon examination, to be a relative deficiency of intellect. Spiritual excitement takes pathological forms whenever other interests are too few and the intellect too narrow.
James continues, when an intensely loyal and narrow mind is once grasped by the feeling that a certain superhuman person is worthy of its exclusive and excessive devotion, one of the first things that happens is that it [the narrow mind] idealizes the devotion itself. Savage tribesmen have, since time immemorial, exhibited their faithfulness to chieftains that are now less important in favor of the deity. And, the deity cannot be praised enough; death is even overlooked on as a gain if it attracts his grateful notice.
The personal attitude of the devotee becomes what might be recognized as a new and exalted kind of professional specialty within the tribe. A consequence of this condition is jealousy for the deity’s honor. How can the devotee show his loyalty better in this regard? The slightest affront or neglect must be resented and the deity’s enemies must be put to shame. In exceedingly narrow minds and active wills, such a care may become an engrossing preoccupation; crusades have been preached and massacres instigated for no other reason than to remove a fancied slight upon the God. Theologies representing the gods as mindful of their [the gods] personal glory and churches with imperialistic policies have conspired to fan the temper to a glow such that intolerance and persecution have come to be vices associated by some of us inseparably with the saintly mind; the saintly temper is a moral temper, and a moral temper has often to be cruel.
Here James cites some examples: St. Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380) panting to stop the warfare among Christians, which was the scandal of her epoch, can think of no better method of unifying them than a crusade to massacre the Turks. Martin Luther finds no word of protest or regret over the atrocious tortures with which the Anabaptist leaders were but to death. And Oliver Cromwell praises the Lord for delivering his enemies into his hands for execution.
Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658) was an English military and political leader then later, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. After undergoing a religious conversion in the 1630’s he became an independent Puritan and took a generally tolerant view towards the many Protestant sects of his period. An intensely religious man, he fervently believed that God was guiding his military and political victories. He entered into the English civil war [predominantly over the question of the manner of government between the Parliamentarians (Roundheads) and the Royalists (Cavaliers)] and became one of the principal commanders of the New Model Army which played an important role in the defeat of the royalist forces.
King Charles I was charged with treason and, it was believed by Cromwell, along with other members of parliament, that killing Charles was the only way to end the civil wars. This belief was based on an address by another member of parliament established on a passage from the “Book of Numbers” (“The land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it”). Cromwell’s was the third signature (out of 59) on the death warrant for the King.
Among other military campaigns, Cromwell led a Parliamentary invasion of Ireland from 1649-1650. His hostility towards the Irish was religious as well as political. He was passionately opposed to the Catholic Church which he saw as denying the primacy of the Bible in favor of papal and clerical authority and which he blamed for the persecution of Protestants in Europe; due in part by the Irish Rebellion of 1641 marked by massacres by the Irish “Gaels” (old English residing in Ireland) of English and Scottish Protestant settlers .
During his lifetime some portrayed him as a hypocrite motivated by power presenting him as a Machiavellian figure. Others, comparing him to Moses, attribute to him the bringing of the English safely through the civil wars referred to as the “Red Sea.” Another biographer describes how Cromwell “loved men more than books” and assessed him as an energetic campaigner for the libertion of moral conscience brought down by pride and ambition. In another assessment, published in 1667 in the book “History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England,” the author, Clarendon, famously declared that Cromwell “will be looked upon by posterity as a brave bad man.” He goes on to argue that Cromwell’s rise to power had been helped not only by his great spirit and energy, but also by his ruthlessness.
Tributes to Cromwell tend to be controversial, especially from the Irish Nationalist Party; in particular, an opposition that led to the denial of public funding to erect a statue of Cromwell outside Parliament which was later privately funded and eventually erected. Yet, one of the first ships commissioned to serve in The Continental Navy [the US Navy] during the American Revolutionary War was named The Oliver Cromwell. Winston Churchill twice suggested naming a British Battleship the HMS Oliver Cromwell yet the suggestion was vetoed by King George V, not just for obvious personal reasons, but he thought to give such a name to an expensive warship at a time of Irish political unrest unwise.
Cromwell died from malaria and kidney infections. It is also thought that his death was hastened by the passing of one of his daughters just prior. On the 12th anniversary of the execution [in 1649] of King Charles I his body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey and was subjected to the ritual of posthumous execution along with the remains of three others.
Here, above, we have an image of Cromwell’s death mask as well as an oil portrait.
When “free thinkers,” tell us that religion and fanaticism are twins, we cannot make an unqualified denial of the charge. James adds that as soon as the God is represented as less intent on His own honor and glory, it ceases to be a danger however. Fanaticism is found only where the character is masterful and aggressive. In gentle characters, where devoutness is intense and the intellect feeble, we see instead an imaginative absorption in the love of God to the exclusion of all practical human interests, which, though innocent enough, is too one-sided to be admirable. A mind too narrow has room but for one kind of affection and when the love of God takes possession of such a mind, it expels all human loves and human functions.
Here James cites from a biography of Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647 – 1690) by Emile Bougaud, a 19th century priest, as example [much abridged]:
“‘To be loved here upon the Earth; to be loved by a noble, elevated, distinguished being; to be loved with fidelity, with devotion – what enchantment! But, to be loved by God! And loved by Him to distraction!’ Margaret melted away with love at the thought of such a thing.”
“The most signal proofs of God’s love which she received were her hallucinations of sight, touch and hearing. And the most signal of these were the revelation of Christ’s sacred heart, ‘surrounded with rays more brilliant than the Sun, and transparent like a crystal.’ And, at the same time Christ’s voice told her that, unable longer to contain the flames of his love for mankind, he had chosen her by a miracle to spread the knowledge of them. He thereupon took out her mortal heart, placed it inside his own and inflamed it, then replaced it in her breast adding: ‘Hitherto thou hast taken the name of my slave, hereafter thou shalt be called the well-beloved disciple of my Sacred Heart. I ask thee to bring it about that, every first Friday after the week of Holy Sacrament, shall be made into a special holy day for the honoring of my Heart … and, I promise thee that my Heart will dilate to shed with abundance the influences of its love upon all those who pay to it these honors, or bring it about that others do the same’.”
“This revelation,” writes Mgr. Bougaud, “is unquestionably the most important of all the revelations which have illumined the Church since that of the Incarnation and of the Lord’s Supper …”
Well, James asks, what were its good fruits for Margaret Mary’s life? He then answers: Apparently little else but sufferings and prayers and absences of mind and swoons and ecstasies and, she became increasingly useless about the convent due to her absorption in Christ’s love which Bougaud elaborates on further:
“…which grew upon her daily rendering her more and more incapable of attending to external duties. They tried her [working] in the infirmary, but without much success. They then tried her in the kitchen but were forced to give it up as hopeless – everything dropped out of her hands. Although her kindness, zeal, and devotion were without bounds, and her charity rose to acts of such heroism that readers could not bear to hear the recital of them. Yet, a prejudice was developing in the order for, regularity must always reign in such a community. So they put her in the school where the little girls all cherished her and cut pieces of her clothes [as relics] as if she were already a saint. But, there too she was much too absorbed inwardly to pay them the necessary attention.”
James here provides us with a lower example still; that of Saint Gertrude, a Benedictine nun of the 13th century (from “Revelations de Sainte Gertrude”):
“Suffering from a headache, she sought for the glory of God, to relieve herself by holding odoriferous substances in her mouth. The Lord then appeared to lean over towards her, lovingly, to find comfort in these odors. After having gently breathed them in, He arose and said with a gratified air, as if contented with what He had done, ‘See the new present which my betrothed hath given me!’ One day at chapel she heard, supernaturally, the words Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, then the Son of God, leaning towards her like a sweet lover, gave to her soul the softest kiss. Next, on the following Sunday, the Son of God, more beauteous than thousands of angels, takes her in His arms as if He were proud of her and presents her to God, the Father. And, the Father took such delight in this soul thus presented by His only Son that, as if unable longer to restrain Himself, He, and the Holy Ghost, gave her the Sanctity attributed to both by His Own Sanctus. Thus she remained endowed the plenary fullness bestowed on her by Omnipotence, by Wisdom, and by Love.”
James then mentions St. Teresa of Avila (1550 – 1582) whom he describes as one of the ablest women of whose life we have record of. She had a powerful intellect of the practical kind. She wrote admirably of psychology, possessed a will equal to any emergency, had a great talent for politics and business, a buoyant disposition, and a first-rate literary style. She was tenaciously aspiring and put the whole of her life at the service of her religious ideals. Yet, James confesses, that his only feeling in reading of her and her work has been that of pity that so much vitality of soul should have found such poor employment (although, he acknowledges that others have been moved differently).
James explains his position thus: Dr. Jordan, an anthropologist, has divided the human race into two types whom he calls “shrews” and “non-shrews” respectively. The shrew-type is defined as possessing an active yet unimpassioned temperament; motoring rather than sensing their way through life. Saint Theresa, as paradoxical as such a judgment may seem, was a typical shrew. He goes on to explain: not only must she receive unheard-of personal and spiritual favors from her Saviour but she must immediately write them down and exploit them professionally. She then uses this expertness to give instructions to those less privileged having not received such graces. Her idea of religion seems to have been that of an endless amorous flirtation between devotee [her] and the Deity – if one may say so without irreverence, he adds. And, apart from helping younger nuns to go in this same direction inspired by her example, he sees no human use in her nor signs of any general human interest on her part. Yet, the spirit of her age, far from rebuking her, exalted her as superhuman.
The next saintly virtue in which we find excess is purity. As in those whom we have just considered, the love of God must not be mixed with any other love. Father, mother, sisters, brothers, and friends are felt as interfering distractions for, sensitiveness and narrow-mindedness, when they occur together, as they so often do, require above all things a simplified world to dwell in. Variety and confusion are altogether too much for their powers of adaptation. Whereas your aggressive pietist reaches unity [with his god] objectively by forcibly stamping disorder and divergence out, your retiring pietist reaches his subjectively; leaving disorder in the world at large by making a smaller world within which he dwells and, from which he eliminates the world outside altogether. So here we have, alongside the church militant with its prisons, dragonnades [in reference to Louis XIV’s persecution of Protestant Huguenots] and inquisition methods; on the other hand, we have the church fugient [one who flees] with its hermitages, monasteries and other sectarian organizations pursuing the same objective of unifying, yet through simplifying. Such a mind will drop one external relation after another. Amusements must go first, then conventional society, then business, then family duties, until at last, seclusion. The lives of saints are a history of successive renunciation of life’s complications in order to save the “purity of the inner tone,” as James so eloquently describes it. The degree of minuteness of uniformity maintained in certain sectarian communities, whether monastic or not, is something almost inconceivable to a man of the world.
The author states that we have not the time for multiple examples so he cites, in particular, the case of Saint Louis of Gonzaga (1568 – 1591) an Italian aristocrat who became a member of The Society of Jesus. James adds that he thinks we will agree that this youth carried the elimination of the external discordant to a point which we cannot unreservedly admire [much abridged]:
“The inspiration came to him to consecrate to the Mother of God with his own virginity – that being to her, the most agreeable of possible presents. Without delay then, and with all the fervor that was in him, joyous of heart and burning with love, he made his vow of perpetual chastity. Mary accepted the offering of his innocent heart and gave him, in recompense, the extraordinary grace of his never feeling the slightest touch of temptation against the virtues of purity.”
At the age of twelve, we read of this young man that, “If by chance his mother sent one of her maids of honor to him with a message, he never allowed her to come in but listened instead through the barely open door then dismissed her immediately. He did not like to be alone with his mother, whether at a table or in conversation and, when the rest of the company withdrew he sought a pretext for leaving. Many great ladies, relatives of his, he avoided learning to know them by sight. He even made a sort of treaty with his father to be excused from all encounters with ladies. When he was 17 years old Louis joined the Jesuit order against his father’s passionate entreaties for, he was the heir of a princely house. A year later when his father died he wrote letters of stilted good advice, as from a spiritual superior, to his grieving mother. A priest one day asked him if he were ever troubled by the thought of his family to which he replied, “I never think of them except when praying for them.” Louis avoided worldly talk and would immediately try to turn the conversation towards pious subjects instead or else he remained silent. He cultivated silence as a preservation from sins of the tongue. One day, during recess, having looked directly at one of his companions, he reproached himself for his grave sin against modesty.
James attests that he can find no other sorts of fruit than these to recommend Louis’ saintship. He died in his twenty-ninth year and is known in the Catholic Church as the patron saint of all young people. On his festival, the altar in the chapel devoted to him in a particular church in Rome “is embosomed in flowers with a pile of letters at the base written to the Saint by young men and women and addressed to ‘Paradiso’.”
Our judgement of the worth of such a life as this will depend largely on our own conception of God, the author contends. The Catholicism of the sixteenth century paid little heed to social righteousness; for, to leave the world to the devil whilst saving one’s own soul was not at all considered a discreditable scheme. Other early Jesuits however, especially the missionaries, were objective minds and fought, in their way, for the world’s welfare. So their lives, to this day, inspire us. But, when the intellect, as in the case of Louis, is originally no larger than a pin’s head and cherishes ideas of a God possessed of corresponding smallness the result, despite the heroism put forth, is on the whole repulsive. What we find here in the object lesson is that purity is not the one thing needed and, it is better that a life should contract many a dirt-mark rather than forfeit usefulness in its efforts to remain unspotted.
James proceeds onwards and we now come upon the religious extravagances of tenderness and charity.
“Love your enemies” and “resist not evil” [as in the turning of the cheek] are saintly maxims of which most men of this world find it hard to speak of without impatience. Are the men of this world right, or are the saints in possession of deeper truths? Anyone who feels the complexity of the moral life knows there is no simple answer here.
James here analyzes the concept of perfect conduct: We have the actor, the objectives for which he acts, and the recipients of the action. In order that conduct should be abstractly, or hypothetically, perfect, all three terms – intention, execution and reception – should be suited to one another. The best of intentions are doomed to fail if it is that any of these are incited by false means, or applied to the wrong recipient. So too: reasonable arguments, appeals to sympathy or justice, are folly when we are dealing with human crocodiles and boa-constrictors. The saint therefore may simply be handing the universe over into the hands of the enemy by his trustfulness. Or he may, by non-resistance, cut off his own survival.
Herbert Spencer tells us that the perfect man’s conduct will appear perfect only when the environment is perfect; for to no inferior environment is it suitably adaptable. In other words, James suggests, we may paraphrase this by admitting that saintly conduct would be the most perfect conduct conceivable in an environment where all were saints already. Therefore, James suggests, that we must frankly confess that, in the world that actually is, the virtues of sympathy, charity, and non-resistance may be, and often have been, manifested in excess. And, the powers of darkness have systematically taken advantage of these virtues. In fact, the whole modern organization of charity is often, not always of course, a failure due to such.
James here asserts, in general, we will agree that despite the Gospel, despite Quakerism, despite Tolstoy [see MFA chapter (O), Leo Tolstoy – “The Tough Pacifist“] , we believe in fighting fire with fire; in shooting down usurpers, locking up thieves and freezing out swindlers. And yet, we are also sure, that were the world confined to these hard-headed, hard-hearted, and hard-fisted methods exclusively, were there no one prompted to help a brother first and find out afterwards whether or not he were worthy; no one willing to drown the wrongs done unto them in pity for the wrong doing person; were there no one ready to be duped many a time rather than live always in a state of suspicion; no one glad to treat individuals passionately and impulsively rather than by general rules of prudence, and the world would be an infinitely worse place to live in than it is now. The tender grace that promises, not of a day that is dead, but of a day yet to be born somehow.
I shall here provide a link to MFA Chapter (O) Leo Tolstoy – The Tough Pacifist for, Tolstoy’s brilliant argument on behalf of pacifism as Christ taught it in The Sermon on the Mount changed how I thought, what I believed, is appropriate in dealing with evil. See for yourself if it has not the same affect on you.
The saints, in this way, proclaims James, with their extravagances of human tenderness may be prophetic; for, in a sense they are the prophecy. In treating those whom they meet as worthy, despite the past, despite all appearances, they have stimulated those individuals to be worthy; miraculously transforming them by their radiant example and by the challenge of their expectations. Thus, from this point of view we may admit that the human charity which we find in all saints, and the great excess of it which we find in some saints, to be a genuinely creative force, tending to make real a degree of virtue which it [the quality of human charity] alone is ready to assume is possible. The saints, James avows, are increasers of goodness for, the potentialities of the development of such in human souls are unfathomable.
So many who seemed irretrievably hardened have, in fact, been softened, converted, regenerated in ways that amazed the subjects even more than they surprised the spectators, that we never can be sure in advance of any man that his salvation by the way of love is hopeless. We have no right to speak of human crocodiles and boa-constrictors as fixedly incurable beings. We know not the complexities of personality, the smoldering emotional fires, the other facets of the “character polyhedron,” nor of the resources of the subliminal region.
Saint Paul long ago made our ancestors familiar with the idea that every soul is virtually sacred. This belief in the essential sacredness of everyone expresses itself today even in all sorts of humane customs and reformatory institutions and in a growing aversion to the death penalty and to brutality in punishment. The saints, with their extravagance of human tenderness, are the great torch-bearers of this belief; the clearers of the darkness. It is not possible to be quite as mean as we naturally are when they have passed before us.
Yet the world is not yet with them, so they often seem in the midst of the world’s affairs to be preposterous. And momentarily considered, the saint may, with his tenderness, be the dupe and victim of his charitable fever. But, the general function of his charity in social evolution is vital and essential. If things are ever to move upward, someone must be ready to take the first step and assume the risk of it. Anyone not willing to try charity, to try non-resistance, as the saint is always willing to do, cannot say whether these methods will or will not succeed. When they do succeed, they are far more powerfully successful than brutal force or worldly caution. Force destroys enemies, and the best that can be said of caution is that it keeps what is as is. But, non-resistance, when successful, turns enemies into friends and charity regenerates its object. For, as James already stated, these saintly methods are creative energies. The saint, he professes, is an effective ferment of goodness, a slow transmuter of the earthly into a more heavenly order.
The next topic James addresses is asceticism – a virtue quite liable to extravagance and excess [as we have already seen]. The refinements of modern thought has, as he has already stated, changed the attitude of the church towards corporeal mortification and a Suso or a St. Peter of Alcantara strike us as tragic figures, rather than inspiring respect. We ask, what is the need of all this self-torment? The concept however is, anyone who is genuinely emancipated from the flesh will look on pleasure and pains, abundance and privations, as alike in irrelevance and with indifference.
As the Bhagavad Gita suggests, according to James, if one be truly unattached to the fruits of action, one may indeed mix in the world with equanimity. And the Buddha, in pointing out what he called “the middle way” to his disciples, told them to abstain from both extremes: excessive mortification being as unreal and unworthy as mere desire and pleasure. The only perfect life, the Buddha said, is that of inner wisdom, which makes one thing as indifferent to us as another, and thus leads us to rest, to peace, and to Nirvana.
The Bhagavad Gita is the foundation of a great epic that is the Mahabharata, or great story of the Bharatas. With nearly one hundred thousand verses divided into eighteen books, it is one of the longest epic poems in the world – fully seven times longer than the “Illiad” and the “Odyssey” combined or, three times longer than the Bible. It is, in fact, a whole library of stories that exerted a tremendous influence on the people and literature of India.
The scene of the Epic is the ancient kingdom of Kurus which flourished along the upper course of the Ganges River. And the historical fact on which the Epic is based is the war which took place between the Kurus and a neighboring tribe, the Panchalas, in the thirteenth or fourteenth century before Christ. It is within this enormous epic, in less than one percent of the Mahabharata, that we find the Bhagavad Gita, or the Song of the Lord, most commonly referred to as the Gita.
Arjuna, the greatest hero of the Pandavas [one of five Pandava sons], has pulled up his chariot in the middle of the battlefield between the two opposing armies. He is accompanied by Krishna (a Hindu deity) who acts as his charioteer. In a fit, Arjuna throws down his bow and refuses to fight deploring the immorality of the war. It is a moment of supreme drama: time stands still, the armies are frozen in place, and God speaks. The situation is extremely grave. A great kingdom is about to self-destruct due to warfare making a mockery of dharma [the eternal moral laws and customs that govern the universe]. Arjuna’s objections are well founded; he is the victim of a moral paradox. On the one hand, he is facing persons whom, are members if his family and, to dharma, deserve his respect and veneration. On the other hand, his duty as a warrior demands that he kill them. Yet, no fruits of victory would seem to justify such a heinous crime. It is, seemingly, a dilemma without solution. It is this state of moral confusion that the “Gita” sets out to mend.
Source: About Religion: “A Brief Introduction to the Bhagavad Gita” other sources for this three part series are mentioned at the bottom of “The Varieties of Religious Experiences” Part III.
Continued on: chapter (H) “The Varieties of Religious Experience” by W. James Part III: