The Pearl of Great Price
Chapter 4

The Cloud and the Fire

In the course of the Israelites' exodus, the presence of God never left the people. It had a tangible form:

They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham on the edge of the wilderness. And all the time the Lord went before them, by day a pillar of cloud to guide them on their journey, by night a pillar of fire to give them light so that they could travel night and day. The pillar of cloud never left its place in front of the people by day, nor the pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13.20-2).

The physical presence of the Lord was intimately involved with his people during the whole period of their journey (Exodus 40.38). The fire did not so much replace the cloud as burn within it. In much the same way the divine presence never leaves us on our spiritual journey, whose destination is blazed forth by the radiance of the pearl of great price; we momentarily glimpsed it in a blessed state of illumination, after which we consecrated our very life to obtain it for our own. The cloud reminds us of the unknowable quality of God as we move on our daily routine in the world. Furthermore, the divine fire is stiflingly dulled by the thoughtless, unheeding, seething masses. And so our exodus from the world of selfish endeavour is attended by the cloud of unknowing into whose mysterious depths we commit ourselves in faith as we progress to the Promised Land of our own destiny. In the dense cloud the contours of the illuminated world are, paradoxically, more visible than in even the full glare of earthly wisdom. The initial illumination that led us on the quest of spiritual truth is now no longer a fleeting memory of the past; the memory is rather assuming a dominant part of our living awareness. In the cloud we see dim images of the light, images that draw us on further to the accomplishment of our great undertaking.

Yet in our everyday life we so often betray the call to full integrity which is the inner image of the pearl. The way upwards is also the way downwards, and the constant tensions of our present situation all too frequently lead us into attitudes and actions that shame us. One would have thought that we at least, striving for the good life, would not fail so miserably time after time. It is indeed the shadow consciousness striking back at us and with a vengeance. Is there any good in us at all, or are all our strivings mere gestures of egoistical concern for our reputation in this world and our preservation in the life of the world to come, always assuming, in our moments of dark agnosticism, that there is such a place of survival of the dead? All our lives are a journey to the grave: the hour that gives us independent life also takes it away from us as we move steadily and inexorably towards our common destination. When we betray our own inner ideals and are shown up as shallow frauds and hypocrites, we put ourselves out of communion with our peers. The common march goes on without us as we sit despondently on the wayside, ignored by the passing parade. So, of course, did the Prodigal Son, but in the depth of his loneliness he met someone of whose presence he had been previously oblivious.

In other words, at times we are out of alignment with our fellows because of our own stupidity or wickedness, but as soon as we come to terms with our situation and do not try to extricate ourselves by our own manipulation, the divine presence will make itself known to us. It was, of course, always there, but before our debacle we were not available to receive it. When human solidarity is withdrawn from us we may, if we have courage and forebearance, be able to experience divine acceptance and help. It is a common spiritual insight that God loves us, irrespective of our worthiness. But unfortunately this insight remains remote from most people in the turmoil of their own lives, especially when they are sick, bereaved or unemployed. No one can convince another of his intrinsic worth, or that he has been forgiven his many sins; formal absolution itself may not completely still the inner qualms of regret. We have great difficulty in forgiving ourselves when we are strongly orientated in a moral dimension, so deep is the thrust of a stern, nagging conscience. This fact, incidentally, reminds us of the tyranny of an unyielding conscience, no matter how independent it is of past conditioning. If we cannot forgive ourselves, who then can convince us that we are forgiven?

If our attitudes and intentions are sincerely directed to what is morally right, the ultimate forgiver of sin, God himself, will tell us that all is well. And so we are read,

My children, love must not be a matter of words or talk; it must be genuine, and show itself in action. This is how we may know that we belong to the realm of truth, and convince ourselves in his sight that even if our conscience condemns us, God is greater than our conscience, and knows all (1 John 3.18-20).

The passage goes on to say that if our conscience does not condemn us, then we can approach God with confidence. It follows therefore that God both reassures the sincere, but uncertain, conscience and then enables us to approach him in confident joy; thus the conscience itself grows in depth, as its tolerance broadens to accept much, both in the person himself and in his fellows, that would previously have been the occasion of revulsion, a rejection based essentially on the fear of contamination. It is a moment of great liberation when we no longer have to hold doggedly on to any spiritual principle externally inculcated, inasmuch as that principle is now so completely part of ourself that we accept it and venture out into new fields of experience. Thus Jeremiah prophesied the time when the Law would no longer have to be taught and obeyed as an outer ordinance, but would rather be an inviolable presence in the soul of the believer.

Two occasions in my own life bear out the fact of God's grace at times of personal crisis. Both occurred a long time ago, and their fruits can be surveyed with the detachment and tranquillity that the passing years bestow. On the first occasion I, in a fit of childish pique, put myself at variance with some colleagues who demanded work of me that seemed unfair, for the time was a major public holiday. My refusal to co-operate led to their cold-shouldering me; the ostracism was unbearable, for I would not concede their point of view. In desperation I drove out into the countryside, during which time a sudden peace descended on me. It also filled me with the resolution to make my peace with the others; when I had done this, heavenly accord flowed among us all. In that brief period in the wilderness, I had known the acceptance of God, and his peace had filled me with something infinitely more precious than the good opinions of people. I had been lifted to a higher level of reality, one that far outdistanced the narrow limits of the work in which I was routinely engaged, without in any way denigrating the importance of that work. Looking back on this episode, I can see that neither I nor the others were without blame, because the decision to do the work over the holiday period had been taken without my prior consultation. I have no doubt that I would have agreed wholeheartedly, had I first been consulted, but to have been ignored was more than my self-esteem could stand. When, however, I was infused with the peace of God, the usual sequence of apology, justification and recrimination simply dissolved away. I, in some measure, retained the memory of that peace, and it has remained an invaluable support through the vicissitudes of my subsequent life.

The other event that was to have a lasting effect on my spiritual development was centred on a minor motoring offence that I had committed. When the summons arrived, I was filled with terrible foreboding. I had never appeared in court before, and the possible punishment in store for me magnified itself to a gaol sentence in my fevered, innocent imagination. No doubt I would have been less overwhelmed with fruitless anxiety had there been someone else available with whom to discuss the matter, but living alone can impose an almost unbearable tension on a rigid, inexperienced conscience. Then suddenly I was aware of a presence of wordless strength behind me. It infused me with a power of love that had undertones of strength and direction, telling me (in wordless communication) not to be anxious and to do what was necessary to come to terms with the situation and put myself in right footing with the law. My whole personality seemed, at least subjectively, to have been not merely renewed but actually transfigured. Love, joy and peace flowed from me as I conducted a counselling session that afternoon in the squalid premises I then occupied, and I was guided along effortlessly to the appearance in court where the statutory punishment was pronounced: a nominal fine and a temporary endorsement of my driving licence. Even the publicity that I feared did not seem to materialize. What, however, I gained spiritually from that encounter with the law was out of all proportion to the anxiety and embarrassment I had suffered. The actual presence behind me during the spiritual encounter was so circumscribed and directive that I have often wondered whether it was my guardian angel, but for those of us who cannot accept such a metaphysical concept, it is enough to say that my "higher self", or spirit, was in command of the situation. This spirit is in direct communion with the Holy Spirit of God. Once again the experience made an indelible impression on my mind, and was a crucial event in my developing spiritual awareness.

In these two experiences I was in a cloud of my own making. Had I been less childish in the first, and more careful and considerate in the second, I would never have known the darkness, but at a crucial moment I had yielded to innate impulses that, theoretically at least, should have been laid aside when I reached adult stature. But emotional maturity develops slowly and is probably never advanced in any earthly life. The emotionally mature person is in control of his feelings, whether of anger, fear or resentment, so that he neither lays their burden on other people nor is overwhelmed by them in a situation of crisis. Such a person can absorb the emotional disturbances of those around him and is in his own being a fine counsellor and also a minister of healing. We cannot either counsel or heal others effectively, until our own inner disturbances are not only faced but also integrated into our personalities. My two dramatic encounters with inner darkness brought me also to a knowledge of God that had previously been outside my experience. The pillar of cloud that seemed to judge my failings revealed its fire, a fire of purification and healing, when I was ready to accept its verdict, forgiveness and healing.

God is both in the little cloud, which we emanate in our baser moments and in the great cloud of unknowing, which we have to penetrate in trust if we are to know him. In the immortal words of The Cloud of Unknowing, "By love may he be gotten and holden, but by thought never". In our extremity, typified by that of the Prodigal Son, we are open to his love, which, like all genuine love, is unceasing, undemanding and universal. That love kindles the flame of love in our own hearts, and then a new dimension of living unfolds. Love is undemanding, inasmuch as it is not conditional on any prior worthiness on the part of the beloved, but the effect of that love sets extreme demands on the beloved, who then is enjoined to give love to all the world. In other words, the unconditional love of God brings with it a call to service so that all other creatures may also know that love, mediated by the particular person who has received the divine love. God's love operates through our own particular personalities, each of which is of unique value no matter how unprepossessing we may appear in the world. It not infrequently happens that an apparently insignificant person is an especially fine mediator of love, inasmuch as he is less concerned about himself and the image that he displays in the world around himself.

We read in 1 John 1.5 that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. The cloud that he shows us is described aptly, though paradoxically, by mystics as "dazzling darkness". It is something of the smoke that filled the sanctuary while the threshold of the temple shook to its foundations, as the angelic host proclaimed the terrible holiness and glory of God in the tremendous vision of Isaiah, a vision that inaugurated his prophetic ministry. The cloud shows us the enormous gulf between us and a knowledge of God. Indeed, no one can see God directly and remain alive, so destructive are the uncreated energies that proceed from him, in the same way that our mortal sight would be irrevocably destroyed were we to gaze directly at the sun. As a person grows in spiritual authority, so he can come to God more directly and see the magnitude of his own unworthiness as well as the greater span of the divine acceptance.

The darkness can also be the result of our own poor sight. Just as the blind man cannot see his surroundings, so the majority of people are still spiritually blind, as we remember from the passage of Isaiah, quoted earlier, that follows the prophet's vision of God in the temple (Isaiah 6). Even the traveller on the spiritual path may experience periods of poor sight, as did Jesus momentarily on the cross when his Father's presence was so inapparent that he believed he had been forsaken by him. He had, during the period of his passion, to assume the full burden of human impotence and woe; without the experience of spiritual darkness that so often clouds the lives of the most devout believers no less than their indifferent fellows, he could not have spoken to the total human condition. The darkness sometimes takes on the quality of a failure of nerve or a destructive scepticism that obliterates all previously held belief, so that the aspirant flounders in a dark sea of meaninglessness tinged with dread.

To some believers all this is attributed to a malicious assault by the supramundane powers of darkness. It would, in any case, be futile to speculate too expansively about the origin of the impediments that block the spiritual path. Since we are all parts of the one body, it is not unreasonable to conjecture that a demonic influence could find its entry into the individual personality through some defect in it, the Achilles heel that we all have. It may be greed, covetousness, rancour or lust, to name only four common human failings. Few of us are immune in any of these aspects; indeed, their acknowledgement is part of our spiritual development. If they are accepted and then laid on God's altar in faith, they will be progressively constrained and ultimately healed and spiritualized. Thus greed can be transfigured to a yearning that all people may be fed; covetousness to the desire that all may be satisfied. The power of rancour may become a creative anger at the manifold injustices in the world which in turn is actualized in a fight against cruelty. Lust, an accentuation of the most powerful of all the human drives, intimately involved as it is with procreation, can be raised up to the level of love, which in turn helps the spiritualization of the other failings.

It is noteworthy that in the story of Job, the hero is tested quite deliberately by Satan under the aegis of God, his father no less than the father of Job. God will not countenance Job's death, but connives at all the other sufferings laid upon him. One always remembers the Old Testament affirmation of the unity and sovereignty of God in all his creation: "I am the Lord, there is no other; I make the light, I create darkness, author alike of prosperity and trouble. I, the Lord, do all these things" (Isaiah 45.7). All this stands apparently in stark contrast to the Johannine doctrine, previously noted, of God being light without darkness (1 John 1.5). It seems probable that the darkness of creation is a secondary phenomenon related to the independent selfish use of free will by God's rational creatures. The legend has it that Lucifer, the prince of darkness, was originally the bearer of light in the angelic hierarchy, who overreached himself in trying to vie with his Creator. And now his light has been corrupted to darkness, as it misleads unwitting humans down the seductive path of self-aggrandisement to destruction. But fortunately, to return to Isaiah once more, God is in ultimate control: no phenomenon or event is outside his power and compassion. He created Lucifer in the same way that he created the monsters of cruelty in the world's long history. These perverted the power of life within them, just as the world's saints have glorified that life. Most of us lie uneasily some way between these two extremes; the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh with its various failings is tragically weak; and the pearl cannot be acquired apart from either spirit or flesh.

One always hopes for the conversion (which means a turning to the light) and healing of all deviant creatures, whether here or in realms beyond mortal knowledge. It does not seem to me unworthy to hope that the devil himself may be saved. But here indeed we work in inspired hope which may be fructified in faith by our own more perfect living. The final redemption of the created world from the bondage of sin, when the universe (to quote Romans 8.21) itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and enter upon the liberty and splendour of the children of God, is a mystery. But even as we act as mature, responsible human beings in the present moment, so we act to set in motion that great cosmic event. For the person of courage the present discontent also has its place in the divine scheme, and his way of ascent of the dark mountain is also a way to the divine knowledge; the pearl is revealed in the darkness no less than brilliantly concealed in the grandeur of life's pageant. Nothing is outside the range of God's healing love once it is brought to him in child-like trust. This is the basis of a living faith. No one can claim the hidden treasure until he has experienced and mastered the baser elements of life.

Again we are told to use our worldly wealth to win friends for ourselves, so that when money is a thing of the past we may be received into an eternal home (Luke 16.9). This statement, part of the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, is preceded by the observation that the worldly are more astute than the other-worldly in dealing with their own kind. The truly wise of the world - far removed from the merely worldly-wise, who are experts in managing affairs to their own temporal advantage but have little extended vision of the consequences of their actions in a broader framework of existence - can strike a balance between the current affairs of the world and the life of eternity. This we are living now also, however unaware we may be in our short-sighted actions of the passing scene. The two worlds, the visible and the invisible, are brought together in the realm of values: what is true, noble, just and pure, lovable and gracious, excellent and admirable (to quote Philippians 4.8), lifts our present situation into the world of eternity where there is no change, and where all creatures live together in a state of peace that passes all understanding.

In this state the cloud and the fire become one also, for now the light can be seen directly without any ensuing blindness. Conversely, the cloud is seen to contain the light of God as it too draws us on. It spurs us to our inspired efforts of understanding: scientific, social, economic and political. As we work with integrity in the deep mines of the world, impure as they (and we) may be, we contribute our service to the raising of the world, and when we die there will be many to greet us on the other side of life.

Chapter 5
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copyright©1988 by Martin Israel.