Books That Pointed The Way

[This is the eighth installment of my memoir, The Long Walk Home. Click here for a complete table of contents.]

While working at the alternative bookshop Dulcinea under the leadership of Gulliver, I continued to take an interest in Christian literature. Like my experiences in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, with its great religious paintings, and in Assisi, home of St. Francis, I had to credit Gulliver for bringing some of these books to my attention, even though he did not recommend or encourage reading them. Raised Catholic, he understood and exuded Catholic culture, but did not practice Catholic faith. Thus I picked up a sense of the faith from someone who spoke of but did not model it. This was just one of the ironies of my years with him.

Gulliver used to claim that in his early peregrinations he had taught at a Jesuit University somewhere or other. The dates, the exact name of the university, and the syllabi of the courses he taught were never clear to me, but then Gulliver usually mystified his life story such that no student was likely to conduct a background check.

One thing was indubitable about his background, however. Gulliver had been raised Catholic. Deeply so.

His father, I learned, was anti-clerical and his Spanish-born mother delved into the occult. But both had been Catholic, and all his schools and teachers had been Catholic. I have seen a first-communion photo of Gulliver taken when he was seven or eight. He is wearing one of those little-dictator costumes favored by Spanish mothers dressing up their sons for First Eucharist. He looks both absurd and angelic. It is the purest I ever saw him—Gulliver, the good little Catholic boy. Still sometimes today, I try to imagine that little boy praying inside his hardening old heart.

So when Gulliver spoke about Catholicism, as he did in Paris, I listened. He spoke admiringly of the founder of the Jesuits, whose name he said in the Spanish manner: Iñigo de Loyola. In English, we say the Latin form, Ignatius. Gulliver was impressed with Pedro Arrupe, SJ, the then–Father General of the Jesuits. It may have been Father Arrupe’s custom of praying in an Eastern cross-legged position that attracted Gulliver, since my guru taught that all world religions were but one teaching: Christian or Buddhist, it didn’t matter. Gulliver also liked the fact that Father Arrupe was something of a rebel. Gulliver referred to Arrupe as the Black Pope.

Consequently, I became intrigued with the Jesuits in Paris in 1971.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius

One afternoon, after our classes at the Alliance Française, I followed Gulliver into a Catholic bookstore not far from St. Sulpice. There I bought a French-language edition of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola—the fundamental training manual for Jesuits. I picked it up because it was short and it was in French, allowing me to practice the language; but there was a third reason. Gulliver spoke of the Spiritual Exercises as a sort of Catholic work on oneself, as though traditional worship, rightly applied, could deliver the same spiritual benefits as a more esoteric method, like that of Gurdjieff.

The slender 230-page paperback with laminated cover is still tucked between taller volumes on my religious bookshelf today. My underlinings and margin notes speak of my youthful eagerness to look at Catholic culture from a Gurdjieffian point of view—or maybe it was vice versa. I wrote alongside one paragraph, “Consenting to a negative thought = a mortal sin,” an equation connecting Gurdjieff’s injunction not to express negativity with a more severe Catholic phrase. My last note in the book translated a phrasing of Loyola into the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer, “in thought, word, and deed.” To me this was equivalent to “in the intellectual, emotional, and moving centers,” in which centers is another Gurdjieffian term.

These are some things I wrote then, but here is what I remember as I write more than forty years later. I am reading the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius while sunning myself on a deck chair at an outdoor piscine near the Seine. The late spring sunshine laughs over the blue water, making it sparkle. I am sitting erect, both feet squarely on the deck, as Gulliver has instructed me to do, and I am endeavoring manfully to pay attention to some religious exercises written in French. Meanwhile, all around me French women are stretched out topless on their backs, and breasts of all shapes and sizes are winking at me like Brueghel demons. It is a very Brother Leo moment.

[The final reference is to St. Francis’s sidekick, Brother Leo, whose appetite for the ordinary things of life sometimes hindered his ability to understand his saintly leader.

My Christian readings continued in Gulliver’s company, though “on the side,” especially after I learned that there was a Gurdjieffian school of Christian exegesis. Gurdjieff had referred to his own teaching as “esoteric Christianity,” and his followers like P. D. Ouspensky would claim that the Gurdjieff Work held the key to the “inner meaning” of the Gospels. Such a follower was Maurice Nicoll, whose book The New Man became something of an obsession with me during the first year of Dulcinea, the alternative bookshop where I volunteered while finishing up at college.] 

The New Man by Maurice Nicoll

The British Maurice Nicoll was a Harley Street physician and former student of C. G. Jung who met G. I. Gurdjieff, became a student of Gurdjieff’s estranged disciple P. D. Ouspensky, then wrote a five-volume compendium about it all called Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspenky. 

These Psychological Commentaries became Gulliver’s preferred vehicle for teaching the Gurdjieff Work. In choosing them, I know now that he was (a) leaning toward his own professional field of psychology while (2) leaning away from Gurdjieffian orthodoxy, if such a thing exists. I have since learned that “real” Gurdjieff groups do not read Nicoll. They read Gurdjieff, especially his magisterial, oddly titled thousand-pager, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. I have read Beelzebub three times and admire it.

But under Gulliver we read Nicoll and no one in the Gurdjieffian hierarchy checked on our syllabus. What did Nicoll say about the Work and Jesus? What did he say to me as a twenty-two-year-old? It is hard to say now what I thought then. What I think now is quite different, as I recently wrote.

Boil it all down and Nicoll wrote that a key was needed to read the “inner meaning” of the Gospels. Without ever naming the key—he referred to it only as special “understanding”—Nicoll made it clear to the Gurdjieffian insider (me) that the key to the Gospels was the Work, as the teaching of Gurdjieff was known to us.

This was thrilling to me. In 1973, the year I read and re-read The New Man, I believed I was reading the Truth, not just Nicoll’s truth, but the truth about the way, the truth, and the life offered by Jesus. Without ever referring to sources (there are no footnotes or bibliography in The New Man), Nicoll proposed to reveal the inner meaning of Christ’s teaching. If I remember well at all, it may be that I had two responses to this proposal, one intellectual, the other emotional.

Intellectually, I’m quite sure I thought, Ha ha, I know something my father and mother don’t know! I know something most ordinary church-going Christians fail to understand: The Gospels are a manual for work on oneself! I know this, and you poor benighted slobs don’t know this. This was a personal discovery of the meaning of “esotericism”—knowing oneself for an insider and everyone else for an idiot.

Emotionally, I believe that even then, forty-some years ago, my Christian heart was touched by a book about Jesus, no matter how strained and preposterous the exegesis. Nicoll was trying, in spite of himself, to lead me deeper into something that, as a Sunday-schooled boy and a youth who dreamed of being an Episcopal minister, I still cared about in my inmost soul. Gurdjieff might lead me somehow to Christ!

If only I could find a way of losing the sense of my own importance as an insider in an esoteric teaching. That would take many years.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis

I had to sneak around to read some Christian books, something I did in my off hours at Dulcinea. To read a classic Christian devotional text like The Imitation of Christ, if not authorized by Gulliver, was to risk censure. Just before I left Dulcinea, in early 1976, I read an edition of The Imitation that remains on my bookshelf today, alongside the Spiritual Exercises. Like St. Ignatius’s text, my edition of Thomas à Kempis is heavily underlined. It is possible that this reading experience led to my departure as much as did my negative experience with Stephanie.

What I remember most about that first encounter was the book’s foreword, which explained that Thomas à Kempis had been a member of the Brotherhood of the Common Life. This movement, which emerged in the 14th century and faded to black in the 19th, was a network of consecrated laypeople living communally throughout northern Europe. I was fascinated by the notion of living communally with other like-minded spiritual people while working in the world, as we were doing at Dulcinea. To do so was like being a monk with a lunch pail and a daily commute.

I was not ready for The Imitation in 1976, at age 24, but it stayed with me and helped lead me home. I was not ready for such straight-on devotional sayings as these:

Let all the study of our heart be from now on to have our meditation fixed wholly on the life of Christ …

Jesus has many lovers of His kingdom of heaven, but He has few bearers of His Cross. Many desire His consolation, but few desire his tribulation. 

My son, says our Lord, hear My words and follow them, for they are most sweet, far passing the wisdom and learning of all philosophers and all the wise men of the world. 

It would be more than thirty years before I was ready to meditate fixedly on Christ; before I could even think about desiring his tribulation; and before I was willing to abandon all other philosophers and wise men of the world.

NOTE: This is a brief excerpt from my book-length memoir The Long Walk Home, copyright © 2015 by Webster L. Bull. All rights reserved.

To read the next excerpt, “Stephanie: Heart-Break,” click here.

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