Rational Scientific Theories from Theism
Mystical Sabbath and Heavenly Work
I am a Quaker, and also a recent member of the Swedenborg Society. I am not as well versed in Swedenborg's writings as I would like to be, but one aspect that struck me as long as 40 years ago was Swedenborg's statement The Kingdom of Heaven is a kingdom of Uses'. I liked this, and still do, and it is connected for me with William Blake's 'Energy is eternal delight', and with the 'tremendous labours' of Blake's central figure, Los, with his furnace and hammer and anvil, a symbol of the great divine-human works of Imagination (Blake's term), that engage us in this world and the heavenly worlds.
Also, I had an occasional companion in those days, Frank Rose, at present a Swedenborgian minister in Arizona. Frank had stayed earlier on as a lodger at my parents' house in Colchester for a year or so, when I was about 14. My mother introduced him to me at the tea-table on his first day at our house, and said 'Mr Rose is studying theology.' I was still a bit of a Just William, I'm afraid, and I immediately said-'What on earth is theology?' 'Oh David! said my mother and Mr Rose in the same shocked breath; and then they tried to tell me a little of what it was.
I must have been an incipient modern Quaker even in those days, (I am not a birthright Quaker), for even after their explanation I was as baffled as before. I did not see how there could be any such thing as theology. And to an extent this attitude remained with me a few years later, when I enjoyed the occasional genial and scintillating discourses of Frank, sometimes as we travelled in a train to London. I had already discovered William Blake, but did not 'theologise' him, nor at that time did I take his heavenly worlds to be anything more than metaphors for our human experiences on earth. (This outlook is very common today, and continues to distort the work of scholars on Blake). However I was fascinated by Frank's confidence in the human ability to communicate something of the reality of God and of the heavens by mere speech, and by diagrams. For Frank would draw diagrams for me, on the spot, illustrating points concerning Divine Wisdom, and other matters. I was both amazed, and somehow appalled, at these illustrations.
Perhaps it was Frank's American innocence and freshness, if I dare postulate such a thing, coming up against my Old World tiredness and melancholia. Frank was a continuous bubbling spring of pure and elaborate expressiveness, his face and his eyes lit up and mobile, and his large hands and long fingers searching out, and finding, the most curious shapes and motions to accompany his meanings. I remember Frank as also double-jointed, and the ability to bend his fingers both ways added enormously to the effect.
This may sound trivial, but it was not. His expressiveness, his confidence and energy, his permanent high spirits on a high plane, his total lack of pomposity or heaviness, and at the same time his thorough commitment to what he was doing and believing arid experiencing - all this came over to me as a living illustration of Swedenborg's Doctrine of Uses.
However, what he also came up against in me was what I will call my 'Sabbath mysticism'. I had experienced by that time certain things of a mystical nature, rather shallow rooted to be sure, but having enough intensity to be contributing an important current to my life. Descriptions of 'the negative way'- in Eckhart, or in the Hindu Upanishads, made complete sense to me, and I could not see that anything more was required. To talk of the heavenly worlds as something real and additional to this world, seemed to my mysticism unnecessary, almost a a sacrilegious breaking of what I then thought was the unity of all things. (And this unfortunately, is too often what has happened to mysticism in our century). I felt that Swedenborg was a visionary in a rather ambiguous sense, of worlds whose 'objective' reality I did not then need, and that he was, in any case, not a mystic. I probably supposed a connection between his 'lack' of mysticism , and his 'mistaken' belief in the objectivity of the heavens.
I've called it a 'Sabbath mysticism', by which I mean the realm of the most supreme restfulness, a kind of seventh day rest after the labours of creation. Just as God rested then, in the literal aspect of the story, so we can rest in Him, and in doing so, somehow get beyond both Creation and the Creator-God. It is as though we can use our own faculty for the infinite to peer into that mystery of God's being that has nothing to do with the making of worlds. Eckhart described this as 'the Godhead', higher than 'God'. It is where 'God does no work'. Such a mysticism is not sufficiently indicated by the mystical unity of all things. It is more than that, it is a point of rest, and a boundary of darkness, beyond which our access is limited. Though it is beyond us, we have a spiritual need for it.
For the slaves of the old plantations, the greatest heavenly dream was of rest, their songs were often about rest, and simple though they are, they have a tinge of this mystical quality. In my own personal history, to find spontaneously, and as a gift from God , this great mystical Sabbath rest, this pure still Nothing, as Eckhart would call it, was a miraculous release from my own emotional turbulence and turmoil.
I do not repudiate those mystical states now, but only the false interpretations that I at first put on them. I have been a painter for some 30 years, and most people see that my best works are those that express this 'mystical Sabbath' -for insance a huge flat rolled East Anglian pinkish field, in October, that Sabbath of all months, stretching out into a blue distance, and resting under a vast and peaceful sky. I make these paintings anything from four feet to six feet in length, and it is still profoundly satisfying to me to conceive and to carry out these expressions.
It was precisely through expressiveness, in fact, that I began to change my attitudes, and to come closer to good old Frank Rose and to Swedenborg. For I found that these mystical states in their occasionally prolonged peacefulness, resulted eventually in a build-up of a very special energy, waiting to be released for creative purposes. I was ready or becoming ready for some creative Uses. I became a poet, at about the same time that my painting gradually became able to express the Sabbath rest, and other aspects of existence. Later on I began to feel that this energy should also be expressed through thought, more particularly , theological thought. I began to believe that theology could, after all be done - and by this I mean, not by me but by great theologians of the past, whose works now drew me powerfully.
I never spoke with an angel, or saw an angel, or saw any special vision of. that kind. What I did experience were glimpses of what I believe is the higher structure of the worlds, by a sort of intuition, and corresponding to changes of the positioning, as it were, of my own faculties and powers, as the energies re-shaped me and possibilities of expressiveness were growing in me. It was not much, but it was enough to bring me out of a rather quietist (and secular) mysticism common in Quakerism, and into a real appreciation of the heavenly worlds, and an enjoyment of the prospect of energetic creativeness and development beyond physical death, as described by Swedenborg.
It has also brought me out of the furthest margins of Quakerism, for most modern Quakers do not acknowledge a need for heaven, and the 'energy' of 'eternal delight' in the heavenly worlds. If they did, there would be nothing better in the world, as a form of worship, than the mainly silent Quaker Meeting, that Sabbath-point out of which the amazing heavenly energies would emerge. We need active human fellowship, both in this world and the next, though our inmost part may be that infinite spark that conjoins with the mystical God, God in his aspect of darkness and of rest. It is not necessarily private, we can meet others there at their greatest depth. We need to be double jointed in our spiritual apprehendings.
(David Britton is a member living in Leiston, Suffolk and an active member of the Quaker Theology Group.)
(to be) reproduced by permission from "Things Heard and Seen", Vol 7 (Spring 2002) pp8-9.