The Pearl of Great Price
Chapter 11

Powers and Principalities

St Paul, at the end of his letter to the Ephesians, reminds his readers that the fight is not against human foes, but against cosmic powers, against the superhuman forces of evil in the heavens. To an earth-attached liberal generation, these lurid terms of reference to cosmic evil do indeed seem far-fetched, but the very events of our own century cannot but bring us to a more cautious approach to reality. We do indeed live at a dangerous period in a very unstable society, in which anything might happen at any time. I often think of the concluding lines of W. E. Henley's poem, Invictus:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

The poet was a vigorous atheist who lived at the end of the nineteenth century, when liberal ideals were coming to the fore in emancipated western society. Thus Alfred Tennyson could write of "a land of settled government, a land of just and old renown, where freedom slowly broadens down from precedent to precedent". The idea of a liberally orientated, evolving society, an evolution that was part of its very nature, similar to the Darwinian model of biological progress in which natural selection determined the onward flow of growth and differentiation of various species, seemed irresistible. The terrible events of our own century, in which two disastrous world wars were punctuated by the planned extermination of millions of humans, and the release of nuclear energy upon unsuspecting populations, have at least served to shatter these mechanistic, humanistic illusions, and as we approach the last decade of the twentieth century, we seem to be drawing breath just in time to avert a nuclear holocaust.

At the same time as these world events have shown us how little control we have over our lives and earthly destiny, the work of Sigmund Freud and his numerous successors has revealed the fragmented consciousness by which we live day by day, even when there is peace and prosperity around us. Of course, the great Christian spiritual directors of the past knew about this - and we think again of Romans 7.14-25 where St Paul laments the tragic ambivalence of unredeemed human nature - but their voice has been largely drowned by the din of those who peddle earthly security, according to fashionable social and economic theories. The human is especially dangerous when he trusts in science to solve the enigma of life and believes that he can work out his own salvation by increasing his knowledge of the material universe and the process whereby it is maintained. We remember St Paul's famous words in 1 Corinthians 1.25, about divine folly being wiser than the wisdom of man and divine weakness stronger than man's strength. He is glorifying the amazing event of the resurrection that forms the high point of the doctrine of the cross, where failure on an earthly level is the precursor of a resurrection that involves not only Jesus but also all who follow in his way of life. I would hope nevertheless that Paul would not have purposely denigrated the achievements of scientific thought; he was speaking in terms of priority. Thus, when man can kneel in humility and thanksgiving before the Author of life, while affirming the enormous gains that scientific research has wrought, but remembering that none of this would have been possible but for the bounty of that Author, he sees himself in proper perspective as enlightened human agent working in devoted collaboration with the forces of goodness and love, the source of which is God himself.

While applauding all scientific endeavour that leads the mind to a greater grasp of truth, we begin to see that truth has no endpoint. The more we know, the greater our ignorance reveals itself. Thus we realize that no matter how expertly the scientist may unravel the basic processes involved in life and the very creative act itself, so that he may be able ultimately to define the elementary building block of the universe, he cannot explain how that basic particle (or whatever it may transpire to be) came into being. It is the spiritual alone that can create the physical, for the spiritual mode is eternal and of another realm of being as compared with the physical. This, by contrast, is finite, and subject to change, decay and destruction. But how can we know this spiritual realm, whose jewel is the precious pearl? It cannot be grasped with the reasoning mind because of its subtle nature. Instead it reveals itself to us when we are ready to receive it. The intimations that formed the beginning of this account are the way of revelation for the hardened materialist. To the less unobservant, more immediately aware, and those of humbler disposition, every moment of life reveals the spiritual foundation of existence: life itself is a miracle, something that induces wonder, as celebrated so gloriously by the writer of Psalm 139 who marvels at God's omnipresence, and the author of the Book of Job who celebrates the divine providence for all the creatures of the world in the great theophany that forms the zenith of the book.

But if a self-assured scientific humanism can lead us disastrously astray in the direction of hubris, a religious triumphalism can be equally detrimental in estranging us from the cool discriminating action of reason, so that we become captives to a man-made theory of God that can tolerate no dissention. It is no longer the desiccating intellect but the fervent emotions that take charge, leading not infrequently to a destructive fanaticism to which the many persecutions of minority, dissident groups in the world's chequered religious history bear a warning testimony. Indeed, the atheist has much truth on his side when he blames religion for most of the world's suffering. Unfortunately the events of our own century have shown that the good intentions of humanistic agencies are equally fatally flawed. All human schemes of social justice seem in the end to flounder as the individual takes advantage of a present opportunity for his own material benefit irrespective of the welfare of his fellows. This is a part of the original sin that we all inherit as the cross of human endeavour.

Humanistic endeavour without a spiritual base ends in truncating the human personality: intelligence and emotional drive are preserved, but there is no experience of a presence that leads us on from the restrictions of the world to the freedom of eternity. It was precisely for this experience of eternity that the human was created. He is to enjoy it and make it available for others; with it he emerges from his animal shell and advances triumphantly into the spiritual realm whose end is the vision of God. Since, in the thought of St Augustine, God has made us for himself alone, and our souls are restless until they rest in him, there can be no ultimate fulfilment in a world of solid matter, until the soul soars heavenward in intimate communion with the divine. This is where the precious pearl is to be located, but as the pace of the journey quickens, so do dark shadows of menacing intensity cloud the way. These are no longer the little shadows that are part of the individual psyche, but a barely penetrable part of a dark, terrible conglomeration that works towards the annihilation of all that is good and pure. The still point of security is soon assailed by the demonic element in creation, and its simple repose rudely shattered. No one who moves heavenward can escape its impact, for it is the final barrier to be cleared before the pearl can be seen clearly. It seems that there is a force or power at the very root of the creative process that works towards its corruption and fall. Only the overthrow of all that is just, beautiful and conducive to the advancement of society in goodness and love will satisfy its Moloch-like greed. Like the Canaanite idol to whom children were sacrificed, it too thrives on all that is innocently good and pure, for lack of deeper knowledge. This is acquired only by experience, hence the necessity for a gradual approach to spiritual truth by the aspirant. The weak flesh that encompasses the willing spirit is only slowly strengthened until it can bear the assault of unmitigated evil and descend to the very depths of the infernal region. When we are most entrenched in our own security, the power of darkness is especially active. The terrible events of our own time bear dark testimony to a power of destructive malice that is cosmic in scope, yet capable of immense concentration in the individual psyche. It reaches its culmination in people who are naturally evil; they can be thought of as mediums of demonic activity. We have to face the unpalatable truth that there are evil geniuses in the world comparable in their destructive activities with the marvellous creativity inherent in scientific, artistic and spiritual geniuses. How they develop - indeed the reason for their very existence - is still a mystery, though genetic and environmental factors must surely play their part. I have, however, met a number of highly spiritually evolved people whose backgrounds have been so appalling that a criminal career would have appeared on the surface to have been inevitable. On the other hand, some frighteningly destructive people seem to have had all the social ingredients for a happy, constructive life. They are called psychopaths, but this categorization does nothing to explain their character. It is they who are especially powerful mediums of destructive cosmic forces, and their power is related to their intelligence and their ability to communicate on a psychic level with other people. The murderous type of dictator, so common in our century, typifies this trend to its most devastating extent.

The cosmic darkness is part of the intermediate psychic realm through which all communication between humans, as well as between them and God, takes place. It has been the fundamental error of the agnostic humanist of the past to ignore this dimension of reality, or else to believe fondly that its impact, if not its very source, could be neutralized and healed by liberal policies in education and economics. Ironically in fact, the destructive fury is animated primarily against all that is emancipated in thought and progressive in creativity and human relationships. Inasmuch as liberal attitudes refuse so often to confront the fact of naked evil or else to explain it away psychologically or sociologically, they are especially liable to provide a foothold for its actions until such time as they are protected by a powerful spiritual tradition that shows itself in prayer, worship and the life of charity. This is, in fact, the most cogent argument for religious education and ministry, remembering, as we have already observed, that religion can also go wrong and become the channel for demonic agencies. It must therefore be constantly monitored by tradition, reason, and above all the lives of its saints throughout the ages. These, to quote Hebrews 12.1, are the witnesses to faith around us like a cloud and with them we must throw off every encumbrance, every sin to which we cling, and run with resolution the race for which we are entered. The passage goes on to enjoin us to have our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom faith depends from start to finish, who, for the sake of the joy that lay ahead of him, endured the cross, making light of its disgrace, and has now taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

The evil that disfigures so much of our life on earth makes little outer impact on the man in the street. He is indeed shaken unobtrusively by its force, yet knows, like the crowd around Jesus on the cross, nothing of what he is doing or what is happening to him in the depths of his soul. The seeker of the pearl, however, as he approaches the end of his journey, is literally flattened by the onslaught of hatred and vile revulsion around him. It comes to him primarily as a psychic impact that aims at his total destruction. To this is added the secondary impact of human rejection and detestation. In the climactic events at Gethsemane and on the cross at Calvary the intensity of the onslaught was amplified. The evil is often channelled into the adversaries of the seeker, who by this time is no longer an anonymous private individual but a representative of the forces of light in a dark universe. He has emerged as a power with which to be reckoned, and the forces of controversy, jealousy and guilty fear tremble before him and then deliver the fateful blow. All this may sound forced and dramatic; in the instance of Jesus it delineates absolutely the genesis and development of the conflict between him and the powers of darkness in the world. These were concentrated in the political and religious leaders opposed to him, but it is important to understand that the drama was much more than merely a local conflict. It was a confrontation of cosmic extent. All humanity was involved in the crucifixion, so intimately are we all parts of the one body of creation. The collective sin of the world descended on those who condemned Jesus and called for his crucifixion. His Jewish brethren bear the stigma, but they were simply the local vehicle of the forces of destruction. They have become the scapegoats of a terrible miscarriage of justice, but like the tragic Judas Iscariot, they were also the hapless pawns of the powers of darkness that infest all rational creatures. Jesus' very perfection was the spark that ignited the conflagration of destructive hatred.

It follows that there are special agents of evil and also the general populace, who carry the torch from their leaders and set up an immense train of destruction. The evil impulse may well reside primarily among the fallen members of the angelic hierarchy. The legend of Lucifer challenging God and then excluding himself from the heavenly circle, so that his light, rendered false by his own wickedness, may now seduce all who are open to selfish impulses and malicious attitudes towards their fellows, seems to embody a truth, even if illustrated mythologically. The end of the powers of evil, wherever we may place their origin, is world domination. But behind this outer desire for conquest there is a hidden, deeper lust for total destruction. The evil impulse looks for the death of all life, the corruption of all beauty and the perversion of all truth and justice. Many types of violent agitators are similarly animated by their hatred of certain groups of humanity - if not all human beings - rather than their concern for the downtrodden and oppressed. The one who suffers the onslaught of evil may be tempted to hit back; resentment, hatred, and imprecations of vengeance all rear their heads in the Bible. Some of the psalms are full of cries for the destruction of the wicked, Psalm 109 being an especially notorious case in point. The apocalyptic books of both the Old and New Testaments likewise shower curses on the persecutors of the elect, and in some chapters of the Book of Revelation the hatred is of frightening intensity. The impulse to revenge is human enough, but the results of this type of writing have had lamentable repercussions in the form of persecutions centuries later. Only evil has triumphed.

On other occasions the train of evil is visited in a more personal way; the tribulations of Job are typical. Here a perfectly righteous man is suddenly deprived of wealth, family, health and, above all, the reputation that he so valued. In this story Satan is enabled to test Job to the utmost, provided that his life is spared. Though Job does not curse God, he does curse the day of his birth to his three friends who come to comfort him. To the burden of his sufferings he now has added the futile, pious platitudes of these three well-intentioned, but unimaginative visitors. They can be regarded as the prototypes of those who visit the sick and bring gloom and irritation with them, or those who telephone the convalescent patient to inquire about his health. Duty and curiosity rather than the intention of providing constructive assistance so often motivate their enquiries, which soon become an added burden that disrupts the patient's rest. All this the seeker of the precious pearl must learn to tolerate in addition to the pain of his humiliation and the suffering of his illness. In the drama of Jesus' crucifixion the only helpful spectators were the three women who stood patiently at the foot of the cross. They had no counsel to impart, only helpless love to give. Had Job's friends behaved likewise, they would have eased his burden instead of augmenting it. In other words, the hard impact of cosmic evil on the soul of the aspirant is aggravated by the emotional effusions of his fellows, ignorant rather than malicious. Only the one who has passed through the valley dark as death and has emerged into the light on the other side can be of help. The irony of the situation is the absence of such a helping hand in the travail of the seeker after truth. He, like Christ, has to proceed alone, deserted cruelly by his friends and apparently by God also. There is no outer prop any longer: faith itself is tested to its point of breaking, as all sources of hope recede into a background of dim memory and sad regret.

This does indeed seem to be the acid test of the probity of the seeker of the pearl: is he really prepared to sell everything he has in order to purchase it? Something more than money, time, inconvenience, reputation and personal relationships is demanded. It is his own self that he has to sacrifice, the self in fact that has to die before the true person can be revealed. The self that has sought the pearl is the ultimate price; not only are its outer comforts, those already mentioned, to be sacrificed, but also its intimate landmarks of identity. The most intimate landmark is one's own faith and the moral values on which it rests. All these are to be taken away - not because they are bad in themselves, which obviously is not true - so that the person may be shown completely naked before himself. He is, of course, always naked before God, as at the time of birth and death, as before the Fall and after it also, despite the contrivance of clothes to cover up Adam and Eve's private parts. But now nothing is left hidden between him and his fellows, him and God, and finally him and his own true being which is anchored in the soul. When he started out on the awesome journey to acquire the pearl he had no doubt that he would be ready to sacrifice all he possessed to attain his end. One sadly reflects on poor Peter confidently assuring his Lord, only shortly before the betrayal, that he at any rate would stand firmly beside him even if he had to die for him. Then only a little while later when Jesus was cruelly assailed by his enemies, Peter denied on three occasions ever having known the man. So in like manner the traveller to the kingdom of heaven has to be divested of everything that made him sure of himself, on which he fondly believed he could rely in complete trust. The reason for this radical disembarrassment of all outer attributes is that a cloud remains that blocks the way to the kingdom, that interposes itself defiantly between the seeker and the precious pearl, until the final act of renunciation.

St John of the Cross in The Dark Night of the Soul writes of "dark contemplation", an enforced confrontation with the void that lies at the heart of all creation, a void so terrible in its absolute lack of limitation and termination that it seems to engulf and extinguish any hope for the future. It seems to annul any faith that there is anything at all for which hope could be a valid basis; yet the individual stands squarely in the void. It is in fact an authoritative confirmation of the immensity, the very totality, of the dark forces that have encompassed the creative process for at least as long as God's forward-looking creatures endowed with a reasoning mind have exercised their free but inexperienced, uninstructed wills. In our little world it is the human being that has been given dominion with immense power over his lesser brethren in the animal and vegetable worlds. Until they are schooled in awareness and grounded in charity, the human creatures are capable of fearsome cruelty applied with destructive energy to all this exists. And yet, strangely and confusingly, this capacity for destruction seems to be an integral part of the creative process. Without it, the creative impulse would lack an urgent stimulus for advance, and the growth of the individual would be stultified, eventually grinding to a final halt. It seems that somehow a balance has to be struck between the forces of creative evolution and those of destruction until a new creature of promise is conceived from their tempestuous union. It is precisely this new birth into reality that the seeker of the pearl of great price has dedicated himself to attain, though he would never have conceived what it entailed, indeed its very nature, at the outset of his apparently praiseworthy but innocuous journey. He is now poised at the very centre of the vortex of creation, and has offered himself as a lamb of sacrifice for the great work of human evolution. He has expanded from a minute particular to embrace the world, but it is a world, as St Paul puts it so unforgettably in Romans 8.21-2, groaning in all its parts as if in the pangs of childbirth. And so he too suffers the terrible pain of creation breaking free of the destructive power that checks it, to enter into that freedom from the shackles of mortality and enter upon the liberty and splendour of the children of God. And the seeker has now graduated to the position of a truly awakened child of God who can help his Father in the ceaseless process of creation.

The seeker has offered himself indeed as the sacrificial lamb in unwitting imitation of the Lamb of God who was sacrificed from the creation of the world. Christ sacrifices himself perpetually on the altar of human cruelty, so that in the end his way may form a bridge between the human and the divine, bridging even the gulf between the sacred and the profane, the saint and the sinner. The seeker may have previously read all this in texts from Scripture and the great spiritual writers of mankind, and even been strangely inspired by their power, but now he finds himself in the crucible of purification where text assumes the reality of existence. He is now being finely purged of all personal attachments, all illusions that stand in the way of the vision of God. To these are added the collective idolatries of the society from which he has sprung.

At last he is truly nothing, the grain of wheat that is in process of dying, the sacrificial lamb slain to save his fellow creatures from death, not by propitiating God's anger but by giving of himself, now sanctified, for their enlightenment. For a moment he can see the precious pearl quite clearly though apparently a long way off; then all is occluded from his vision.

Chapter 12
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copyright©1988 by Martin Israel.