Thursday, 21 May 2015

Signs & Wonders - 4

Image result for stirring itThe final chunk of my complicated reflections on the lives of a Christian and an occult practitioner.

Anyone who prays accepts that part of the business of prayer is the effect it has on the one who does it: thus Christians say that prayer is less about telling God what you want than about listening to him, learning to align one's will with his. This is of course nothing less than the truth; but putting all the emphasis in this direction turns away in some discomfort, perhaps, from those Scriptural insistences that prayer is also supposed to make very concrete things happen, or at least play a role in them happening. ‘The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective', says St James, ‘the prayer will make the sick person well.’ ‘If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer’, says Jesus quite baldly. Generations of Christians have been driven to angst and anguish by trying to reconcile such statements with the apparent deafness of Heaven to what they pray themselves.  

People, by and large, want to help, want to be able to do something practical for others. What originally propelled Dion Fortune towards occultism – strange though this might seem to those of us with a rationalist frame of mind – was the feeling that the psychotherapeutic techniques in which she was trained were actually inadequate to help her patients, and something was needed which took a rounder view of the human person and its mental components. Throughout the history of the Society of the Inner Light there was a persistent desire, never fulfilled, to develop something along the lines of an occult healing centre that would combine a variety of therapeutic techniques to heal, and that sometimes this would include physical as well as mental disorders. One of the Higher Plane teachers who regularly contacted the Society, known as ‘the Master of Medicine’, would occasionally remind the members of this aspect of the work. Dion Fortune and some of the adepts did indeed deal with individuals and their problems on this basis, but the plan for a more corporate healing centre never materialised. For Agnes Sanford, the whole impetus of her ministry came from the experience of healing and being healed.

The similarities between the two – the focus on visualisation and mental training, for instance – are striking. Furthermore, although the occultist may seem to concentrate more on an internal journey towards adept-ship which doesn't necessarily have any obvious purpose beyond the person concerned, it’s clear that Dion Fortune, at least, intended the purified soul to be more useful to their fellow beings rather than just enjoying some individualistic communion with eternal reality. Agnes Sanford’s teaching, obviously, was even more concentrated on discovering ways, often very old ways, of ‘clearing’ the human will to be more open to the will and power of God.

If both spiritual disciplines do seem able, at some level, to help prayer produce sensible effects, an important question arises for Christians: what’s happening? The fact that Dion Fortune’s first mentor in the occult world, Theodore Moriarty, was an accomplished exorcist, raises the issue in a rather acute form. Remember how Jesus is challenged about this very matter, accused of ‘casting out demons by the prince of demons’, and responds to the religious authorities, ‘then by whom do your sons cast them out?’ pointing out further that if Satan is casting out devils his end can’t be far away. Christians who might want to argue that good supernormal works wrought by non- (or heterodox) Christians are in fact delusions of dark spiritual powers have to cope with the Church’s ancient and Biblical insistence that those powers cannot do anything wholesome and good, except by accident. You can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring, states St James; by their fruits you shall recognise them, says Jesus.

Assuming this is not all the purest nonsense, there seem to be two possibilities. First, that there is some sort of innate spiritual power in human beings which can be activated and energised by certain techniques, whether they are framed within a Christian or an occult context, or something entirely different. Second, that God responds with generosity to prayers offered to him with compassion, without necessarily insisting very much on the person offering them having the correct belief structure. The first omits God and can never form the basis of a Christian approach to the matter;  the second leaves the initiative with God; but still unsettles Christian assumptions about their own specialness. It would make God more open-minded, perhaps, than we might be comfortable with, or can afford to be.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Keep Up At The Back

A text conversation.

Cylene: Is Pastel Goth one of our relatives or are they just neighbours who only really do a similar look but have their own scene (like Gothic Lolita)?
Me: I don’t know – I don’t think I've ever met anyone who described themselves as a PastelGoth, or pointed someone out to me who was!
Cylene: I've only seen it online! Hence why I don’t know if they’re ‘us’ or not
Me: Or whether they exist at all?
Cylene: Well, if major newspapers are doing reports on Health Goth I've just come to assume everything exists now
Shoulda gone with Hula Goth while I had the chance
Me: I hadn't heard of Health Goth either. I’d argue it’s not Goth until Goths wear it, regardless of what some idiot fashion journalists with a Tumblr think
Cylene: It’s literally just Goths who go to the gym; and it was covered I think by the Telegraph
Me: As far as my in-depth study of the last 5 minutes suggests, there’s no indication that exists outside the pages of said newspapers
Cylene: Your eagerness to disprove almost sounds like elitism ;p
And actually Irena had Health Goth in her belt, but first and foremost she considered herself Rivet
Me: It’s not elitist really, because I don’t think there’s any such thing as ‘real’ or not real Goth – except I don’t think it could conceivably be ‘real’ unless people beyond the imaginings of fashion journalists or designers were actually wearing anything like that style. There’s a parallel with CorpGoth which has been a definite ‘thing’ for many years but was originally just a matter of Goths trying to dress in a way acceptable to both straight employers and their own tastes. I’ve seen people with pastel hair and clothes but it doesn’t become Pastel Goth until people consciously think ‘I’m going to look like that’. If Irena wore something that said ‘Health Goth’ that she or someone else had made it does suggest it’s more than just a designer’s label of convenience or what Goths wear in the gym …
Cylene: Agreed, actually. I feel mainstream is all too eager to stamp Goth on things just because there’s black in it or a Goth did it once, and it’s always worst in Autumn

Me: Exactly! Goths go to bed and might well have one or even more pairs of black pyjamas but that doesn't mean there’s a sub-style called ‘Bedtime Goth’ you can get in Debenhams

(And then a couple of weeks later when I and Ms Formerly Aldgate went to the V&A for Alexander McQueen I spotted a young couple the chap of whom was a typical off-duty example of one sort of Goth - beard, long hair, long black coat, big boots), but whose companion retained Gothy eye makeup but was wearing a pink wool 1950s-style coat and a maroon beret - the overlap of Goth and (slight shudder) Vintage). 

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Signs and Wonders - 3

I mentioned a couple of days ago that Gareth Knight's book about Dion Fortune introduced me rather helpfully to the way an occult society operates. He refers repeatedly to the 'work' the Society of the Inner Light did, and one might wonder what that work actually consisted of. I was sufficiently intrigued to try to express it thus.


The initiative is held to come from the Masters (Hidden or Secret or something of that ilk) who have died but are keen to encourage the spiritual development of humankind. They reside above the wavy line on this diagram. The occult society draws inspiration from the broader occult tradition (the scroll) but also directly from the Masters via the medium - in this case, Dion Fortune herself. The Society's members meditate on the trance communications and the tradition, and together develop a system of imagery and practice (the Qabalah symbol on the right) which in turn feeds back into the meditative cycle, providing a means for the society's adepts to interpret and improve their lives. 

As far as the Inner Light was concerned, the communications with the Masters tended to take a back seat as time went on, even while Dion Fortune was still alive. There were three, in the main: Lord Erskine, as mentioned previously, Socrates, and a former First War officer called David Carstairs who had a disconcertingly chirpy manner and in latter years even dictated a rather well-received stage play. After Dion Fortune died, the Masters had less and less to say, or perhaps the adepts spoke to them less; at any rate, mediumship became of progressively dwindling importance and, as Gareth Knight says, under successive mediums 'the type of trance seemed very light, and a condition that was entered and left with considerable facility'. Am I right in detecting something of an edge to this statement?

Well, this is all somewhat extra vires to my main interest, but intriguing nonetheless. 

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Did I Say That?

My only contribution to the election autopsy is this. Apparently Tory canvassers were going round the country waving copies of former Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne's famous note to his successor – ‘Dear Chief Secretary, I'm afraid there is no money. Kind regards and good luck! Liam.’ I'm not surprised if that was so; I was fairly outraged when I heard about it, and Mr Byrne himself admits to being ‘burnt with shame’ every day since, as well he might be. It seemed to speak of such arrogance: to treat the finances of the country, which have such an impact on the lives of millions of people, as a bit of a game. No, there wasn't any money left. No, it wasn't really very funny.

The trouble is, we've all been there. My friend the Dean Emeritus of Guildford Fr Victor Stock once published a book of diaries from his time as Vicar of St Mary le Bow in the City (he maintains half the hierarchy of the Church of England lives in fear of the next volume coming out), and in it there are several absolutely cringeworthy accounts of mis-speaking, usually in attempts to be amusing. ‘Why did I say that?’ Fr Victor asks himself on a number of occasions. And I can recall equally appalling instances – using appalling in its original meaning, implying something that positively drains the blood from one's face – of throwaway remarks I have made which are just not the right thing to say. They have, for some reason, usually occurred in the context of weddings when I am trying to be amusing to put people at their ease, and instead go a bit hysterical. As Fr Victor warns, ‘too funny isn't funny at all’.


These moments of catastrophic inappropriateness are as demonic in nature as anything is, and steal upon us when we feel just comfortable enough in our role, whatever it is, to forget ourselves and allow the sort of humour that helps us get through a job to leak out into the light. At least my slip-ups will have done nothing more damaging than make people think I'm an idiot, rather than contribute perhaps rather significantly to the loss of a General Election. Poor man; silly bugger.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Signs and Wonders - 2

The other book that I managed finally to take down from the shelf and read - mainly in Paris - is Gareth Knight's Dion Fortune and the Inner Light. Having bought some book or other about holy wells many years ago, for some time I was regularly sent a catalogue from an esoteric bookseller in Glastonbury (almost inevitably) and must have bought it from that.

Dion Fortune - or Violet Firth to use her birth name - was, like Agnes Sanford, a sceptical and questioning presence within the tradition in which she stood. Violet came from a Christian Science background, significantly in view of her later opinions. She originally pursued a career in agricultural science, researching the properties and qualities of soya during World War One (and remaining something of an evangelist for its virtues), before moving into psychotherapy. It was a growing awareness in her mid-20s of the apparent inability of psychotherapeutic techniques actually to help people that propelled her towards occultism, as a more holistic way of looking at psychological and spiritual problems.

She joined, not the original Order of the Golden Dawn, but the Alpha Et Omega, its 'official' offshoot headed by Moina Mathers, widow of the Golden Dawn's founder. She and Mrs Mathers later fell out, and Fortune was expelled for having 'incorrect inner sigils in her aura' - an accusation she confessed she didn't even understand. Heavily influenced by the somewhat mysterious occultist and exorcist Theodore Moriarty, Fortune eventually set up her own organisation, which eventually became the Society of the Inner Light. It made use of the Golden Dawn's symbolic system but moved away from its customs of secrecy and hierarchy. Dion Fortune was, in general, a remarkably affable and pacific person, which may help to explain why the Society still survives. It doesn't talk much these days about contacting the Secret Masters on the Higher Planes, though some of that may well go on, and majors instead on teaching meditation techniques.

Dion Fortune's Christian Science upbringing - which was, after all, Christian, albeit of a heretical variety - lingered in her occult work. She headed the Christian Mystic Lodge of the Theosophical Society for a time, and in fact left the T.S. over its promotion of Jiddu Krishnamurti as the coming World Teacher - 'for us in the West', she insisted, 'the Master of Masters is Jesus of Nazareth'; the Inner Light maintained for years a Guild of the Master Jesus which held services on Sunday mornings to cater for members of the Society who regarded themselves as Christians. Notwithstanding the very clear Biblical warnings against consulting spirits, the Secret Masters who guided the Society through Dion Fortune's mediumship tended to strengthen the Christian allegiance of the group, especially the Master who identified himself as the 18th- and 19th-century lawyer Lord Erskine (and who was rather stern about the matter) and even, strange though it might seem, Socrates. On her death in 1946, Dion Fortune was buried in an Anglican funeral service conducted by that other rather odd character, the then Vicar of Glastonbury, Lionel Smithett Lewis.

Dion Fortune and the Inner Light has bits which are, as reading, hard to take, mainly the lengthy transcripts of trance communications from the Masters, but it gave me an interesting insight into the development and practice of an occult society. I will talk about this on future occasions, as well as the similarities with and differences from the more thoroughly Christian charismatic tradition represented by Agnes Sanford.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Signs and Wonders - 1

My reading lately has taken me down some peculiar byways, and led to some interesting reflections, which I will probably outline in a number of posts (not yet sure how many). There are two books in question, both of which I've had hanging around for a number of years.

First was Sealed Orders, the rather creaky autobiography of Agnes Sanford – creaky because, although it only dates to 1972, it looks and feels considerably older due to its author’s style and the way in which it's printed. It turned out to be rather compelling, for all sorts of reasons.

I'd never heard of Agnes Sanford; while I was looking after the parish of Goremead I met someone from a Charismatic Christian background who was disposing of a set of books and asked me to take what I wanted from a box, and for some reason I picked Sealed Orders. Agnes was the daughter of a Presbyterian missionary in China, which was where she met her future husband, American Episcopal minister Edgar Sanford. She went through a deep spiritual and psychological trough when they relocated to the US, mainly generated by repressed frustration at trying to sink her identity into being a wife and mother and nothing besides. Then, sometime about 1931, when their small son John was dangerously ill with an ear infection, he seemed to be miraculously healed by Hollis Colwell, the priest of a neighbouring Episcopal parish. Fr Colwell encouraged Agnes to experiment with praying for healing for particular people, and she found, much to her astonishment, that more often than not it worked. This was the beginning of a life-long healing ministry that had repercussions in many Churches affected by what we have come to call the Charismatic movement.
It's safe to say that Mrs Sanford is a profoundly controversial figure, and this excellent article gives you an idea why. Her thinking acquired all sorts of somewhat peculiar features, from a Christian point of view: she became convinced that she had in some sense been reincarnated to carry out a specific mission from Jesus, and key to her analysis of prayer and healing was the notion of visualisation, a theme inherited from the New Thought movement of the mid-19th century which had links with Theosophy, Christian Science, and other somewhat heretical ways of thinking. For instance, Mrs Sanford insisted that effective healing prayer had to involve positive compassion for the sick person, with no other aim in mind than to relieve their suffering, as this was the attitude of Christ and the work of a Christian healer was to channel his power. She taught that the healer must envisage the person having been healed, and found that visualising light from God shining on them had a particularly powerful effect. For many orthodox Christians this is simply far too New-Agey (though perhaps New Age avant la lettre), as well as placing too much emphasis on the imaginative powers of the healer, and you can find many such critics denouncing Agnes Sanford and all her works, as well as other figures connected with her.
However, Mrs Sanford, and others, were reacting (and naturally over-reacting) against the dominant cessationist thinking of especially Protestant mainstream Churches – the idea that God's miraculous intervention in the natural order had, for various plausible reasons, come to an end with the age of the Apostles, and healing, exorcism and other supernatural events were the province of Popish superstition (not that Mrs Sanford saw them as ‘supernatural’ at all). Furthermore, some of her more bizarre ideas were the result of attempting to understand things she experienced and to place them within an explicatory framework without very much to go on, and Sealed Orders itself is fairly reticent about some of its author's more off-the-wall speculations. She wasn't the only one doing this: her initial mentor Hollis Colwell had absorbed some remarkably cranky concepts about diet and its influence on healing, which Mrs Sanford didn't follow at all; she remained surprisingly and refreshingly sceptical about grand claims. It's hard to see that her opinions are any less Biblical than cessationism: the New Testament does mention Jesus, and the apostles, healing, casting out spirits, and working other dunamis rather a lot, and nothing in the Scripture hints that this is intended to stop at some point, so I would argue she was on sounder ground than her critics.
There is one claim in Sealed Orders which catches you up short, however. After Ted's death, Agnes was considering moving from New England when she felt a vague sense of threat regarding the northwestern states:
I asked, “Lord, may I pray for it to be fended off, just not to happen?” The answer was “No.” This answer did not come in words. In fact, I would not quite trust words unless they sounded loud and clear within me, for it is all too easy to imagine “Yes” or “No” according to one’s desires. The answer came in this way: when I tried to pray thus, the prayer did not rise. I could feel only heaviness. … So I asked, “Lord, may I pray for it to be minimised, so that it will not cause too much damage?” And the answer was “Yes” for when I prayed after this pattern I could feel a lifting of my spirits and knew that the prayer was going forth … [The threat] was, of course, the earthquake … but it just missed being a really destructive one and caused little or no damage. Of course, no one can prove that prayer had anything to do with this, but I felt sure that it did. For four days the prayer project lay heavy on my heart, and after the earthquake came, it was lifted from me.
Mrs Sanford became convinced that God wanted her to move to California specifically to pray against earthquakes. She felt that it would be more effective to do so on the spot than from a distance:
I had found from experience that my friends and I could pray away a hurricane [my emphasis] in an almost laughable manner if it were coming toward the East Coast, but that hurricanes far away in the Gulf did not seem to respond to our prayers.
To some people reading, this kind of thing will seem sheer madness. The only response one can make is that Agnes Sanford was clearly not ‘mad’ in any obvious sense; and that, sensible and compassionate woman working firmly within the tradition of the Episcopal Church (which in those days was a bit more ‘traditional’ than it is now) as she was, the effects of her ministry seem to have been entirely benign, if you lay aside any theological objections to some of her more heretical speculations; and further that Christian tradition, at least in the Catholic and Orthodox spheres, has always insisted that a human will aligned with that of God and open to his influence will be able to discern his voice and work his works. Mad though it might seem to be, and whatever questions the business of praying against earthquakes might raise about how God and nature work, if we take the Gospel of Jesus Christ seriously, this is the kind of thing we should expect to happen.

We will bear this in mind when considering the other figure I found myself reading about – another influential and controversial woman, the occultist Dion Fortune. 

Monday, 4 May 2015

Resistance Is Useless

It was a busy day yesterday: as well as the usual services, two baptisms, with a total of four children and sixteen godparents. I didn't even attempt to remember all the names - keeping track of the children's was enough to cope with.

The children concerned were a six-year-old, a two-year-old, a moderately small baby of about 6 months, and a tiny one of six weeks. The two-year-old posed the most difficulties.

Me: Saffron, Christ claims you for his own. Receive -
Saffron: No! No!
Me: Right, Saffron, are you ready?
Saffron: Yes.
Me: Saffron, I baptise you in the name of -
Saffron: No! NO!
Me: Saffron, receive the sign and seal of G-
Saffron: NO! NO!!!

At no point has the practice of infant baptism in which small children are assumed to be 'covered' by the faith of their parents ever seemed so ambiguous. The only saving grace (perhaps literally) is that Saffron almost certainly was not raising theological objections to the sacrament of holy baptism, only personal animosity to me. She seemed quite interested in the candle given to her parents at the end, possibly indicating a future pyromaniacal career.