The Pearl of Great Price
Chapter 7


The path to the summit of the mountain of transfiguration at whose apex lies the pearl of great price is lined by side-tracks with wide, welcoming entrances that promise intriguing destinations. We remember Jesus' admonition:

Enter by the narrow gate. The gate is wide that leads to perdition, there is plenty of room on the road and many go that way; but the gate that leads to life is small and the road is narrow, and those who find it are few (Matthew 7.13-14).

If Jesus were alive in the flesh today, there would be many who would criticize him as an elitist, but we have nevertheless to come to terms with the evident truth that the wide gate that forms the entrance to the spacious road of self-indulgence and immediate satisfaction is crowded with life's travellers, whereas the narrow, rugged path up the towering mountain of spiritual proficiency is the preserve of the few, indeed the very few.

In this respect we can meditate once more on Jesus' famous Parable of the Sower and the Seed: some seed fell along the footpath and the birds devoured it. Some fell on rocky ground with little soil; it sprouted quickly enough because it had no depth of earth, but it soon withered under the scorching rays of the sun, as it had little root. Some fell among thistles, which shot up and choked the corn. But some fell into good soil, where it thrived and bore plentiful fruit (Matthew 13.4-8). It is interesting that Jesus spoke to the crowds in the esoteric language of the parable; only the disciples were privileged to hear the esoteric doctrine that animated the esoteric teaching, for none was capable of grasping the inner meaning of the parable directly. Jesus explains that the parable illustrated the way of entering the kingdom of God: some hear the word of God, symbolized by the seed which is always fertile, but fail to understand it, so that it is soon annulled by the seductive power of evil. Others hear and accept the word with joy, but do not respond by a radical change in lifestyle; they therefore have no power of endurance and cannot stand up to the travail and persecution that the word, by its truth, induces in the world around them, and so they soon drop away into the anonymous mass of humanity who mill around in mindless tumult. Others hear the word, but are soon diverted by the affairs of the world and its meretricious values; the word of life is choked in them and proves barren. But some are able to hear and understand the word so that it flourishes in the depth of their souls, where it brings forth a harvest of good works which set in action the transformation of society and the transfiguration of the world. This final category is a symbol of the Church with its staying-power in the face of dark discouragement and vicious persecution. In its moment of illumination it ceases to be a mere institution set to perpetuate itself, and starts to fulfil its vocation of service to all creation, invariably to its cost. The Church of God does not reject the world or its values; it rather works with it in order to enlighten it and heal the terrible sickness of humanity. Then the seed will flourish unfailingly and with profusion in the soil of common life.

If we could only see the details of the heavenly banquet, we would not be detained by earthly attractions. And there are many who have seen through the imposing façade of worldly triumphs to the terrible void that lies within them. They too seek the kingdom and its treasured pearl, but morbid impatience dominates their enthusiasm, and so they look for rapid individualistic ways to the common summit of the mountain of transfiguration. It must be said in their favour that they have seen the inadequacy of worldly riches in the great quest. They therefore do not hanker after money, prestige or the flattery that inflates the personality to a balloon-like stature. Instead they set their hearts on the acquisition of knowledge, the gnosis that can tap on the very gate of heaven and demand, even force, entrance. Surely, it might be argued, this is much to be commended: they have consecrated their very being to the great quest and they deserve the fruits of their labour. But what are those fruits, and how has their labour been expended? Are they trying to snatch the pearl from its heavenly seat, or are they sacrificing their very selves for the sake of its purchase? The difference between the two approaches to truth is vast, and yet to many unthinking seekers the ways almost coincide. There is, in fact, a gnosis of occult derivation that seeks to control the universe, and a divine gnosis that rests in the love of God. We remember once more the teaching in The Cloud of Unknowing that God can be attained in vision only by love, but not by thought alone. This statement is not to be seen as a disparagement of the rational faculty, for without it we would soon fall into every type of superstition and fanaticism. It is rather an assertion of the primacy of love and of the warmth of the soul, by which alone the rational faculty, the native intelligence, can be cleansed of emotional blockages and arid pride, and become the chastened vehicle whereby the intuitive knowledge is made available in the common life both of the individual and of the greater community. But we cannot know love until we have moved beyond the ego consciousness that demands recompense for its labours and rewards for its service. Thus we come to the circular argument: to know God you have to be empty of self, and yet this self-emptying can be effected only by the divine grace. How great a paradox is contained in this prescription of the spiritual life! It seems to depend on the movement of the soul, remembering St Augustine's observation at the beginning of his Confessions that God has made us for himself alone and our souls are restless until they rest in him. There is something of God in all of us, and it is this principle that alone can lead us on to the divine encounter, when at last we can acquire the pearl as our own. But if the ego leads us, we shall soon find ourselves in a capacious cul-de-sac with many fellow travellers in a similar state of disillusion and fear. It may be like the Faust story of selling our souls to the devil.

We read in the Bible, "If you invoke me and pray to me, I will listen to you: when you seek me you shall find me; if you search with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord" (Jeremiah 29.12-13). Jesus amplifies this promise, "Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks receives, he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matthew 7.7-8). Yet we know so well from our own experience how often we remain outside the kingdom and despite all our insistent knockings at the door of heaven. All our search seems vain, and not a few who have offered themselves to the sacred ministry have subsequently left, disillusioned and angry with the God who seems to take a special delight in hiding himself, as he appeared to do even to Jesus nailed pitifully to the cross of human malice. The secret of Jeremiah's prophecy seems to be "searching with all the heart". In other words the whole person - body, mind, soul and spirit - has to be consecrated to the search, in the course of which a total renunciation may be demanded. But this demand is from God and never from the individual, no matter how "advanced" he may appear to be in spiritual knowledge, which is in fact more likely to be occult lore. Here we come to the crux of the matter. God looks for our assumption of the full image in which he created us, whereas human teachers of the occult gnostic mode and those who seek after it, yearn, albeit frequently unconsciously, for personal power. In fact both teacher and pupil are trapped in a cul-de-sac on the way. There they will remain indefinitely until they admit their error and seek the guidance that comes with absolution and forgiveness. God seeks the heart which he turns from stone to flesh.

If we seek from the vantage point of the ego, the very object of our search seems to elude our contact. The further we stretch out to acquire, the more insistently does the prize recede from our grasp. The same principle can be seen in human relationships. If an individual is cornered by an inquisitive interrogator and pressed to reveal his life story, that person is very likely to shut up like a clam. Something private and sacred is being exposed to the unrestricted gaze of the multitude. Not only is this intimate secret of the inner life coarsened and cheapened by verbalization, but the person himself is also denuded of something peculiar to himself and sacred in the inner eye of the soul; the further the interrogation proceeds, the less co-operative does the individual become, until eventually he reaches a point of obduracy due to both increasing embarrassment and mounting resentment. The inner mystery of a person is sacred, like the ground on which Moses stood as he experienced the presence of God within the burning bush. He was told to remove his shoes because the ground was especially holy, being infused by the divine presence. The bare feet of the prophet were to be in direct contact with God. In the same way we too have to be emptied of guile and every trace of self-seeking ambition before we can experience God's presence and the love that flows out from him. We indeed cannot serve two masters, God and the things of this world. Only when our attention to God is sharp and urgent can the divine power pour down upon us.

The attraction of secret knowledge is certainly powerful. Not only is the seeker promised an understanding of the hidden forces that govern outer events, but he is also enticed by the power such knowledge promises. It is especially the person low in self-esteem that finds the occult gnostic path attractive, for here at last he can feel important and find a security that eludes him in the course of his daily work. The ego always appreciates inflation, whether from fulsome flattery or the assurance of controlling powers beyond rational cognizance. Well did Jesus warn his disciples of the seductive power of flattery, for it was lavished on the false prophets of earlier times. The true prophet seldom evokes much gratitude because his message is full of truth, the truth that demolishes all private illusions of grandeur and communal illusions of special privilege. All these are subtle diversions that deflect the seeker away from the main path so as to bask in the admiration of the obtuse multitudes who cannot discriminate between gold and dross. They seek continually after a sign.

Is the way of the occultist, the quest after the roots of the psychic power that energizes the world, of any validity in the spiritual path, or is it purely a devil-sent diversion that separates the seeker from the final goal? Two questions need to be answered in this respect: do such occult powers and phenomena in fact exist, and if so, are their manifestation and control an indication of the spiritual proficiency of the seeker on the path? Do they, in essence, assist the search, or are they basically an obstruction in the way of spiritual progress? We may with advantage hearken back to the story of the Fall, when Adam and Eve submit to the temptation of eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil without prior reference of the matter to God, who had already instructed them to avoid eating the forbidden fruit. And yet he places the forbidden tree together with the beneficial tree of life in the middle of the garden of Eden. It can hardly seem possible that God wishes man to be eternally ignorant of the principles of moral judgement that form the basis of discriminating good from evil, but patience and discipline are called for until the time is ripe for the great leap forward under the aegis of God himself. Instead of waiting in obedient trust, the impulsive human plunges ahead under his own steam, and does indeed acquire the knowledge that gives him power over his immediate surroundings. But he has excluded God from his undertaking, and so everything he does subsequently is tainted with egoistic pride and selfish domination. The fruit of the tree of life is now excluded from his grasp, for his own cupidity has put him at enmity with the whole created order; the dominion granted him by virtue of his superior intellect has now become divisive and aggressive. The type of knowledge associated with the rational understanding, if it is not fertilized with love, soon becomes tyrannical and destructive. Without the love that is the very root of our relationship with God, all our intellectual aspirations founder on the rocks of discord and destruction. On the deeper level it seems to me that the fruit promised Eve by the devil was an initiation into the psychical dimension of power by which the world is animated. It embraces the hidden resources of God that are the basis of the great law of creation by which all order is established and all life maintained. That a sphere of knowledge exists that transcends purely rational categories is evident to many people in the course of their lives. Sudden flashes of information, apparently irrelevant and never consciously invoked, may come spontaneously either in the course of waking life with its dull routine of work to be performed or else during the dream life of sleep. This information is subsequently proved by the course of events to have been far from irrelevant, indicating that the unconscious has access to information relevant to times and places remote from the person's knowledge, often of frightening intensity. It is of interest that scientific investigations into the paranormal realm have been, at least to date, disappointingly equivocal. The phenomena are unpredictable and cannot be called upon to order. Their appearance resembles that of the Holy Spirit, who as Jesus tells Nicodemus, in their secret nocturnal meeting, blows where he wishes, just like the wind, whose sound can indeed be heard but whose origin and destination remain unpredictable (John 3.8). So it is with those who are filled with the Holy Spirit. There are societies that claim to be able to develop the normal, usually dormant, human psychic faculties, and there are also more ambitious groups that seek to unravel the secrets of the fabric of the universe, the scheme of individual life, death and rebirth in a supramundane context.

The property that these people share is a claim to a special power or knowledge outside the normal range - paranormal in fact - which can be attained by special disciplines. These mark the aspirant as someone outside the common run of mankind, and set him in action for mastery of a very special type. He not only knows the inner, hidden (or occult) meaning of the world's great scriptures, but also belongs to an elite, a coterie that has special powers, notably in the here and now but also in the greater life beyond death. It becomes increasingly obvious to the intelligent observer that the source of this "secret doctrine", this theosophical dogma, is a psychical focus in the intermediate dimension, closely related to the souls of the departed and the angelic host. Both of these realms have their dark, grey and light areas. A little of what is imparted is of high spiritual calibre, much rather banal and tautological, and some of very dubious validity indeed. The living instrument, or channel, may be a medium in trance or a fully conscious communicator in control of the material. The phenomenon is especially seductive as it purports to come from the regions beyond death, as indeed appears on some occasions to be the case. But even if this origin is accepted, at least occasionally, does it confer on the teaching an especially illuminating authority? That mysterious teaching may come from a bona-fide source in the life beyond death does not guarantee its spiritual authenticity any more than its moral authority. If the soul does, as I believe, grow in understanding in the afterlife, it might take a long time (as far as we can conceive of time in the afterlife) for it to be the transmitter of any noteworthy spiritual teaching of a type not previously available in our more limited earthly plane. Jesus' criterion is one of fruits of actions and teachings, and the fruits of this realm are seldom of great spiritual value, such as we could not find better expressed in the world's treasury of scriptural writing with its product of saintly commentary in words and action. Where, in unusual instances, impressive dogma is transmitted, it leads the hearers back to fundamental spiritual sources already freely available to them, provided they have the interest and humility to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. The danger of all this is that the aspirant is insidiously led into an enticing cul-de-sac where the voice of the teacher assumes a god-like authority, however much it may disclaim such a role. False modesty can be much more persuasively captivating than demagogic rhetoric. The more freedom offered in these regions, the more subtly is the free will yielded for the sake of unquestioning obedience to the occult teacher. The same criteria of unease apply to the prophets of various pseudo-spiritual sects and cults. It is they and what they proclaim that become the focus of authority. A very dangerous idolatry takes control as the face of the pearl is occluded by the cloud of gnostic speculation and psychical confusion. The clear face of eternity known to the simple contemplative, like, for instance, Brother Lawrence, is the proof of the reliability of the way of prayer. The confused medley of conflicting voices is the fruit of those who become enmeshed in gnostic claims and arcane teachings that emanate from psychic sources.

Can we therefore say that psychic intrusions are all evil? Is all theosophical doctrine a dangerous diversion from the straight path that leads to the vision of God, to the pearl of great price that is our earnest of the divine providence? The answer, as in all problems of this type, is neither a simple affirmative nor a categorical negative. These dimensions of personality exist, and in themselves are a means of relating the individual to sources of creativity and feeling that lie beyond the personal field to unite the whole creation in a bond of intimate relationship. The highest bond is love, and if the psychic information has this effect it is indeed a vehicle of grace. Usually, however, it remains an ideal in its own right, so that it usurps the place of the Deity in the life of the aspirant. People dedicated to the pursuit of arcane knowledge find themselves cornered in a blind alley until they renounce gnosis for its own sake and turn to an orthodox religious tradition. Despite its periods of darkness throughout the centuries, the way of religious orthodoxy - and here we may speak in terms of all the great traditions - is illuminated by the lives of its numerous saints, and they alone are the trustworthy guides along the spiritual path that leads to the pearl of great price. The occult path comes to a halt as the end of the cul-de-sac is reached, and then it is seen to be a trap except for those who have the humility and courage to repair their weary way back to the main highway.

On the other hand it must be conceded that a number of atheistic humanists have been led on to that highway through psychical experiences and contact with members of gnostic sects. Others have likewise returned to the Christian fold after illuminating encounters in the Hindu or Buddhist traditions, both of which possess a depth of understanding of the life of contemplation that even today is very often lacking in much Christian religious practice. The gnostic dimension is at least conversant with a span of life that is greater than merely the earthly one. Even if its rather forbidding schemes of rebirth find little sympathy in many Christian circles, at least they encourage the adventurous seeker to pursue a more expansive ideal of salvation than that offered by many denominational stances. One of the greatest hazards of unthinking orthodoxy is complacency, that all the truth is contained in the particular denominational dogma and that there is no need to seek further. Indeed, this complacency may attain such a stranglehold that any conflicting data are, without any further ado, attributed to the devil with his powerful impersonating capacities. Only as the mind expands in love to consider other possibilities, can the traveller proceed along the spiritual path. In other words, complacency leads one to a prolonged halt, and the present situation is naively thought to be the end of the trail.

The psychic diversion with its gnostic affinities is an important distraction, especially as the path lengthens: the way of knowledge cannot be by-passed; on the contrary, it has to be embraced and made spiritual by the power of love. Condemnatory attitudes with paroxysms of zealous persecution, whether by religious authorities or the secular arm of the state, serve only to drive the gnostic faction underground, but in due course it always emerges, if anything strengthened by the harassment that it has been obliged to undergo, together with the martyrdom that so often accompanies it. In other words, ideas cannot be killed, even if their sponsors lie cold in the dust. This observation provides an ironical twist to St Paul's words of encouragement, "Though our outer humanity is in decay, yet day by day we are inwardly renewed" (2 Corinthians 4.16). The ideal of total destruction has to be replaced by one of total redemption and resurrection. The same view is true also of advances in scientific understanding and the technology that arises from them. Mankind has been put in a position of power that even a few decades ago would have seemed visionary. How this power is used will determine the fate not only of the human species but also that of our entire planet. But the clock cannot be put back. We have to learn to work with our newly discovered knowledge so that it becomes a beneficial servant and not a Frankenstein's monster. The catalyst is love, and this comes from God alone.

The real knowledge comes from the unitive experience of God; the world's great saints and mystics have been given the key to that knowledge, and it is in turn their burden as well as their privilege to impart it to their fellow creatures. Like Moses, they have to construct their earthly work to the design shown them on the mountain of illumination. Once we can appreciate and follow the teaching of Christ, "Set your mind on God's kingdom and his justice before everything else, and all the rest will come to you as well" (Matthew 6.33), we begin to grasp the truth, that contemplative prayer is the way of the path, not acquisitive knowledge whether scientific or occult. But as we proceed, such amazing understanding of the fabric of the universe, material and psychic, will be declared to us that we will scarcely be able to contain ourselves for joy that the creation is as it is. Again, as in the story of the Fall, it is our priorities that matter, to say nothing of our inner attitudes of humility and trust. Once we are ready, God does not withhold anything from our grasp. And the measure of our readiness to receive suprarational knowledge is our capacity to flow out in love to our neighbour.

A final thought seems not out of place. In the Parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31), the chastened rich man in hell is told that if his five brothers will not listen to the teachings of Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced of the terror in store for them after they die even if someone should rise from the dead to warn them. Charles Dickens, in his A Christmas Carol, seems to have taken a less pessimistic view: the ghost of his partner Marley comes to Ebenezer Scrooge in a dream and reveals the terrible consequences of the selfish, heartless life he, like Scrooge, had led while on earth. Scrooge is shaken out of his obduracy, and behaves for the first time in his life with charity to his employee Bob Cratchit and his family. Love enters his heart, no longer of stone but now of flesh, as he joins the little family circle for their humble Christmas meal.

Of course, both episodes belong to the world of fiction, but they can still be useful in our thinking. Thus a psychical event can serve to shatter the intellectual arrogance of a materialistic atheist, opening up his quaking mind to possibilities of existence previously out of the range of his conception. Then the receptive mind can go back to Moses and the prophets and start to learn the principles of the good life. Most of us need a strong jolt before we are prepared to move from our present point of view and explore new possibilities. The phenomena of spiritualism are usually crude and seldom impressive to the detached observer, but every now and then they may produce effects that change the life of a previously hardened sceptic. God does indeed work in mysterious ways, and we dare not limit the range of the Holy Spirit's activities. It must, of course, be acknowledged that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, contains numerous prohibitions against dabbling in occult matters, especially trafficking in communication with the deceased, and this is surely sound teaching, because the terrain is treacherous and the end-product inconclusive of the divine reality. But if some of us are endowed with special psychic powers as part of the inscrutable variations of personality that make us all individuals in our own right, so that we each have a unique contribution to make to the whole of the community, it seems inevitable that God expects us to use them. Here the Parable of the Talents seems especially pertinent: we have to use our gifts in the world and not bury them in obscurity. The question is always the same: what is the overriding motive? If it is for self-advancement there will be an ultimate fall, but if it is to God's greater glory and the benefit of our fellow creatures, there will be a final blessing, hard as the path may be. So long as we see all gifts, whether intellectual, artistic or psychic - to say nothing of material gifts of money, beauty and physical prowess - in this light, we will come to no harm.

I personally have no doubt that some of us are given shafts of light quite unpredictably into the future as well as the life of the world to come. They are, in my opinion, not to be eschewed as the work of the devil any more than dismissed as aberrant workings of the mind. They are, on the contrary, to be hailed as a special grace from God, and often they may be of help to someone in our vicinity who is desperately depressed or bereaved. But the gift is not to be sought for its own sake. It is to be handed back to God for his purposes as we proceed quietly along the path in contemplative awareness of the present moment.

Chapter 8
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copyright©1988 by Martin Israel.