Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mysticism and Magic

Whether or not the year 2012 sees the end of the world it also happens to be the fiftieth anniversary of completing my first book, A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism.

Largely based upon knowledge papers of the Society of the Inner Light, I figured at the time that it might have gone some way to explaining God, the Universe and Everything. However, something of its limitations were brought home to me quite soon afterwards when I struck up the acquaintance of Anthony Duncan, who opened my eyes to a number of things I had not even thought of.

We first met after we had independently arrived to live in Tewkesbury, a historic Gloucestershire market town between the Cotswold and the Malvern Hills, at the confluence of the Rivers Avon and Severn. He, fresh out of theological college, had been inducted as a curate at the abbey in his first clerical appointment, whilst I arrived soon after from London to help set up Helios Book Service. As I was looking over the bookstall in Tewkesbury Abbey one day, I saw amongst the parish magazines and devotional works a slim book of poetry, written by the new curate. Whilst not particularly interested in occasional verse by local clergy, a peep inside made me sit up and take notice.

Entitled Elmbury Abbey, it struck me that its author was indeed “fey, so they say” or what I would have more bluntly called unusually psychic. It began:

I am fey, so they say;

I have seen the walking dead

hurry to Mass on a weekday morning.

I have heard the doors go bang

and I have heard their footsteps hurrying.

I have heard the solemn bell’s wild clang;

the long, clear call from the tower.

And another evocative piece, entitled Magic, confirmed my own impressions about this very evocative Abbey.

A thin place this,

where treads my foot more silently;

there is a magic here

which makes that dark and nail-studded door

that locks dimension from my consciousness

lean on its bolts in a sudden breeze

and stir my vapid air.

There is a thinness in this place,

translucent to my senses;

sensing I know not what

save that I’m conscious of my hair

and that I breathe, that I can hear

the sound that silence makes

and know a warmth about my face;

and that I walk more slowly home.

Obviously the author of this stuff seemed somewhat out of the usual run of Church of England ministers. And indeed so it proved. He had been an army captain who had seen service in Germany and the Far East – where he had picked up an interest in oriental philosophy and religions – prior to getting a call at the age of 30 to resign his commission, go to theological college, and become ordained in the Church of England.

I felt it might be useful to get to know this gentleman, enrolled into his confirmation classes and lost no time in presenting him with a copy of my book on the Qabalah, just to show that this was not going to be an entirely one way conversation. The resulting deep and lively dialogue lasted for a number of years, and indeed for the rest of our lives.

He turned out to be highly impressed with what he read in my book, and opined that the Qabalah was “a very remarkable and all-embracing pattern of symbolisms and archetypes” and “a key which in thoughtful hands can unlock a great many doors which are usually closed to man’s understanding.” He regretted that is was not more widely known about, and set to writing a book of his own, entitled The Christ, Psychotherapy & Magic, (subtitled A Christian Appreciation of Occultism), about which a critic in The Guardian newspaper wrote: “Now at last one clergyman has got the point and in this book urges his fellow Christians not to dismiss occultism either as a cranky fad or as 'a black art'.”

Not that he showed glowing approval to everything he read in A Practical Guide to Occult Symbolism or Dion Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah. For Anthony Duncan was not only a natural psychic, but theologically well informed, and also a mystic as well. And in the nicest possible way he demonstrated that there were a number of assumptions that both Dion Fortune and I had taken for granted that did not stand up to analysis when compared to original Jewish Qabalistic mysticism or Rosicrucian writers such as Robert Fludd. That there is a divide between (a) the Tree of Life as mystical approach to God, (b) the Tree of Life as outline of human psychology, and (c) the Tree of Life as examination of the inner mechanisms of the material world – or “the nuts and bolts of the inner side of Creation” as he liked to put it.

This is not the place to go into all of this. It took the two of us some years to thresh it all out, which saw me writing another book taking account of his observations – Experience of the Inner Worlds – subsequently used as a text for training my students over the years, backed up with A History of White Magic for the general public. For his part he courageously wrote a theological work The Priesthood of Man (Bles 1973) putting forward the possibility of a number of esoteric teachings – such as mediumship and reincarnation – being compatible with Christian belief. This caused some distressed squawks from the Church Times – just as my own revisions caused distressed squawks from various sections of the esoteric establishment.

Once he retired, Tony Duncan felt free to write a series of perceptive books: The Way of Transcendence, A New Heaven and a New Earth, The Forgotten Faith (on Celtic Christianity) and The Tao of Christ (a Christian’s reading of Laozi) in addition to his earlier essay in mysticism The Lord of the Dance and remarkable angelic dialogue The Sword in the Sun.

However all ceased in 2003, when his heart just suddenly stopped beating. Not a bad way to go, if a considerable shock to those he left behind. Nonetheless there remains a rich heritage of manuscript work, which I have recently been going through to see what can usefully be published. Amongst which was this revealing little essay Away with the Faeries that aptly sums up the sensitivity and integrity as well as fundamental orthodoxy of the man.


AWAY WITH THE FAERIES [ by Anthony Duncan]

There are fairies at the bottom of my garden. To be truthful, I am uncertain as to the fairy population in the tiny garden of my present semi-detached villa, brick-built and bow-windowed in the best fashion of the 1930’s. I have no doubt, however, that fairies abounded in the much bigger and much wider gardens of the various country Vicarages and Rectories which it has been my privilege to occupy over the years.

That the garden of Parkend Vicarage in the Forest of Dean was thickly populated I have no doubt whatever, but I was then insensitive to the plane upon which the fairy kingdoms operate. It was in the garden of Highnam Rectory that I entered into, not only an awareness of this segment of Earthly reality, but also a conscious, courteous – even affectionate – “modus vivendi” with my resident fairy population. I remember them most kindly; we had become friends.

For a period of some three of four years my range of perception was extended to include periodic encounters with the world of Faerie. This included other, Elemental spirits – entities, call them what you will – and this latter sensitivity to spirits of Earth, Air, Water and Fire was not always comfortable. Happily, and importantly, this extension of perception was a thing given and by no means sought. Looking back upon that period of my life I clearly recognise it as both appropriate to the time and purposeful in terms of my own becoming.

Gifts of extended perception are granted, I believe, on a “need to know” basis. I clearly had a need to know and, above all, a need to have compassion and understanding for that which I was encountering. To encounter with the head only is to fall into delusions of “esoteric knowledge” with all its ego inflating and corrupting possibilities.

To encounter with both heart and mind is to be open to the learning of compassion and understanding. Affection and respect are two constituents of love, without which encounters with the worlds of Elementals and of Faerie can fast degenerate into exercises in manipulative magic.

The extension of my perception into the world of Faerie had another purpose, as I now understand it. I was to learn a measure of humility. Humility has been aptly described as the acceptance of Reality, a thing very difficult for mortal men and women. In this case the lesson in humility involved me in abandoning for good any last trace of that rationalistic arrogance which will not accept anything other than itself and which denies all possibility of existence to other creatures on other levels or planes of being.

To be truthful, I had never had serious difficulties in accepting the possibility of Faerie, but now was obliged to face this part of reality fairly and squarely and take it into both my mind and my heart. I then had to learn to mind my own business all over again, for Faerie is its own business, not mine.

A further dimension of humility that I was now obliged to learn was the clear sight and understanding of that most unfaithful folly of all for any Christian man or woman: the arbitrary consigning of the whole intuitive and perceptive realm to darkness, as if it were exclusively the province of “the devil and his angels.”

This is rationalistic arrogance gone mad, decked out with all the trappings of religiosity. Its underlying dynamic is not Faith but fear, and fear is the denial of love and of the reality of the love of God.

The consignment of the human intuitive faculty to the realms of darkness adds up to a fifty-per-cent denial of the Incarnation!

The world of Faery did me a great service. I learned, fairly quickly, that affection and respect breach great walls of mutual apprehension and uncertainty. Having learned this I then discovered that affection and respect are mutually generating. Having made this discovery the world of Faerie faded from my field of perception and has never returned to it. But I acknowledge its reality and its presence all around me. I shall not forget it.

On the face of things, an encounter such as this is disturbing. It challenges fixed preconceptions and offends all sorts of comfortable conventions and sensibilities. Rejection and disbelief are the expected lot of anyone who admits to such conventional world-view-threatening encounters.

The whole of life is affected by such an encounter in that boundaries of possibility are extended, the potential of things is immeasurably increased and one’s former, comfortably conformist way of life seems increasingly two-dimensional and impossible of continued habitation.

The ensuing temptation is to go in search of other excitements, to extend one’s own boundaries of perception. This is a temptation indeed and is most decidedly to be resisted, for these extensions of perception are given, not gone-after. All that is required, within the context of a disciplined inner life, is the disposition to accept what is given gratefully and to respond to it with respect and affection.

Faery having opened the floodgates, albeit with gentle restraint, my field of perception began, slowly but inexorably, to widen. In retrospect it seems clear that I was to some degree prepared in advance for each new encounter and I have come to regard the whole business as being of the essence of that deeper Vocation which is the purpose of my life on this Earth.

Whatever the encounter, whatever its challenges to both reason and presuppositions, however great the initial surprise, once confronted with the Cross and with the Holy Name, all finally responded to that fundamental approach of one creature of God to another – respect and affection.

I say all? No, not quite all; but upon that which retreats in terror of the Holy Name and cringes at the sign of the Cross and which is wholly alien both to affection and respect, I will not waste good paper and ink.

Yet this too is of The Mystery* and The Mystery alone disposes in ways beyond our understanding, holding out always – so I am persuaded – the possibilities of forgiveness, and of restoration, affection and respect.


*Tony Duncan found it useful to use the term “The Mystery” as a alternative to the over used (and abused) term – God. The Christ, Psychotherapy & Magic has recently been reissued by Skylight Press, along with his novel Faversham’s Dream – describing a psychic porthole between 16th and 20th centuries.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

New thoughts on the Tarot and Glastonbury

Latest of my new editions being put out by Skylight Press is TAROT & MAGIC – THE TREASURE HOUSE OF IMAGES – a book which came out of a number of workshops I did in the late 80’s and is now supplemented by a further six chapters on The Mystical Tree of the Tarot; Images and Number in the Lesser Arcana; the Fourfold Structure of the Greater Arcana; a Narrative Approach to the Lesser Arcana, Preparation for Divination; and Divinatory Methods. This just about sums up everything I have had to say about the Tarot since writing my Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism some fifty years ago. How time flies when you’re having fun!

Also of note is a book just published by an old colleague and student of mine, Coleston Brown, former principal of Sun Chalice books in the USA. SECRETS OF A FAERY LANDSCAPE throws new light on the Glastonbury Zodiac which he reckons might better be termed the Somerset Faery Ring on account of the faery landscape being a place that merges the energies of the deep earth and shining stars, empowering the whole area. Lots of ground maps and star maps to ponder over. [ISBN 9780986591228 – Green Fire Publishing]

Whether we love it or loath it, Glastonbury plays an important role in the esoteric traditions of Britain and I append here some of my recent thoughts about it, commissioned by Michael Howard in whose excellent veteran journal of witchcraft, paganism and folklore, “The Cauldron”, (established 1976!), it recently appeared.

The Different Faces of Glastonbury or The Myth of the Loathly Damsel

The first time I saw Glastonbury, as I have recorded in my esoteric autobiography I Called It Magic, was as a romantic young RAF corporal astride my motorbike looking down at the Tor from the Shepton Mallet road, in 1953, imagining myself to be some kind of knight errant. A view, as I said “once seen, never forgotten”.

I came to know it better, as indeed I came to know myself better, over the years – but in both cases no easy answers are forthcoming. We are all of us, more complicated creatures than we easily realise, and so is a sacred site and west country town like Glastonbury.

Indeed, at times I have been led to think, that if this is “the holiest earth in England” I would hate to see the tackiest! Although I suppose it depends upon how deep one wants to delve.

On the surface show, the last time I was in Glastonbury attending a spiritual event, as we debouched from our high minded gathering I heard a local resident referring to our like as “the scum” that besmirched his fair town. And I suppose he had a point. I am old enough to recall the time when it had more the ambience of a charming west country backwater without the pervading atmosphere of joss sticks and spliffs. Although even in the 1960’s it was not uncommon to see signs up at public house doors – “No Hippies!” The hippies have I suppose now come and gone but have nonetheless left, I suppose, a kind of cultural imprint of sorts.

Not of course that the place was not always considered a little bit “odd”. For the upside of that, one can do hardly do better than consult Peter Benham’s excellent book The Avalonians. And this goes back to the 1920’s and even further – although in those days they were perhaps a little more genteel about it.

As far as Avalonians go, I have to say my own particular esoteric mentor, Dion Fortune, was something of a late comer. She fell in love with the place, put down roots at the foot of the Tor, and wrote a virtual love letter about the place, somewhat inaccurate in parts as love letters tend to be, but nonetheless moving, published in 1934 as Avalon of the Heart. She certainly mixed a heady cocktail out of the place with evocations of Merlin, the Holy Grail, the Celtic saints, Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Thorn, the Abbey, the Tor, Chalice Well, King Arthur, Morgan le Fay, even the lost continent of Atlantis.

And she demonstrated an early exercise of her psychic faculties in company with Bligh Bond at the Autumnal Equinox of 1921 with a paper that became the core of inner work with her Fraternity for many years. That there was an unbroken line of descent of spiritual power connecting directly with the elemental powers of the soil, in which are the roots of the soul of the nation, that is to say, of those who inhabit the land. And that which was noble in the pagan was carried on into Christian times. Head in London, heart in Glastonbury was how she tended to express this in her practical work, with headquarters in Bayswater and hightailing it down the Great West Road, possibly in the side car of Thomas Loveday’s motorbike, to her chalet at the foot of the Tor, where she wrote amongst other things, her magnum opus The Mystical Qabalah and supporting novels.

In her capacious mind there was no great divide between the pagan and the Christian, which she felt confirmed at Whitsun in 1926 when a spiral power had them all spontaneously dancing on the Tor along with an unequivocal call from the Elemental kingdoms “Come from the depths of your Elemental Being and lighten our darkness – Come in the name of the White Christ and the Hosts of the Elements.” Just what was meant by the “White Christ” – who apparently entered the Underworld to preach to the Elemental Kingdoms during the first Easter – has recently been further explored by Wendy Berg in Red Tree, White Tree (Skylight Press 2011) along with the current revival of interest in the faery tradition. Married up to the symbolic objects allegedly brought to Glastonbury by Joseph of Arimathea. Red and white cruets that have some connection with the Grail tradition and other weapons of Arthurian tradition which, like Excalibur, originally came from faery sources – otherwise called the Lake. (Odd that Glastonbury was pre-historically a lake village!) Powers that originally came from the faery world being duly returned to it.

There are obviously deep matters here that tend to go rather deeper into magical and mystical territory than is commonly supposed. What we might regard as bubbling away at the bottom of the cauldron. Although the superficial view may only see the scum that floats on the surface.

This at times can have its amusing and disconcerting side. I recall a visit to Glastonbury to show some Greek friends over the Tor, which happened to coincide with an official religious ceremony of sorts. This was accompanied by holy music blaring from loud speakers, along with the unusual sight of nuns scurrying up and down the Tor, rather as if an ant hill had been disturbed. And one was reminded that the orthodox religious like to make a claim on the place that is every bit as important as the neo-pagan or the esoteric.

The whole situation was amusingly encapsulated for me by the sight of a somewhat prim and proper religious procession proceeding toward the Tor which was spontaneously joined by a young lady, bare foot and festooned with wild flowers, stoned out of her head by God knows what, attracted out of Chalice Well gardens to dance alongside and within and the more staid procession. That, in a sense, was a caricature, to my mind, of Glastonbury all over!

However, there is of course more to it than that. And it seems to me that Dion Fortune had it about right in crediting the place with being a harmonious meeting point between many strands of the spiritual powers of the land. (Well perhaps not too harmonious!) There is a certain great mystical peace manifest among the abbey ruins just as there are about the town points of stimulus to the ancient powers of the land, and there need be no conflict between them. Although I suppose, a certain amount of effervescence might be expected in the confluence of the red and the white. Dragons fighting, but not in anger. Even if we humans do like to take sides like supporters at some cosmic football match.

Something of this effervescence comes out in unexpected ways. One such being the attack on the Glastonbury thorn on Wearyall Hill. Who knows what is at the back of all that? And I do not suppose that even those who perpetrate it know. Even if they think they do.

Glastonbury has a way of coming back at you, even when you least expect it, even if you want to pretend it isn’t there. It has a certain powerful magnetism. I have found it in my own affairs. Helios Book Service, which I launched with my old partners John and Mary Hall back in the early sixties, up near Cheltenham, ended its days in Glastonbury. Sold up when John and Mary retired, it showed a brave face at a corner site at the bottom of the High Street for a couple of years before going to the wall. And on a more positive note, when invited to give a talk in the Assembly Rooms at a Dion Fortune memorial conference in 2007, a young lady came up and started a conversation that ended up with my being persuaded to write my autobiography. Something I swore I would never do as I always preferred looking forward to looking backwards.

However, looking backward does have its points. The subject of my talk that day was on the Faery Tradition in Arthurian Legend, which somehow seemed to strike an octave with Dion Fortune’s introduction to faery in 1920 at the performance in this same hall of Rutland Boughton and Fiona Macleod’s The Immortal Hour. What goes around, comes around. And particularly in what Dion Fortune described as a “three ring circus” such as Glastonbury. From faery rings, to the ring of the Glastonbury zodiac first noted by Dr John Dee, to the continuing ring on the inner of the Abbey bells, there is something for everyone there. Even Tescos.

As Sir Gawain, and other heroes like him found, when confronted with the prospect of embracing a loathly damsel, you only have to take her on her own terms for her transformation to take place. But it is all in your own mind!