Some years ago, when I was nineteen and living in the north of England, I knew a middle-aged man named Reuben who claimed to be visited by angels, to receive visions and auditions from God, to see and converse with the spirits of nature, and to be able to intuit the spiritual complaints of nearly everyone he met. He was a cheerful soul, with a vast and almost impossibly tangled beard of walnut brown through which he was forever running the fingers of his right hand, a few ghostly wisps of hair floating about the crown of his head, and eyes of positively gemlike blue. (Actually, his eyes were rather unsettling at times—they sometimes seemed to be lit from within—but there was never any menace in them.)
He once told me that as a very small child he had assumed that everyone was aware of the numinous presences that he saw everywhere, on a nearly daily basis. To him, a small anthropine figure dancing atop an open flower or a radiant angel standing beside a church door was as ordinary a sight as, well, an open flower or a church door. It was only when he was about seven, he said, after years of his parents’ anxiously admonishing him not to make up tales and to embarrass them with his nonsense, that he began to grasp that the world he saw about him was qualitatively different from that of most other persons; and when he was about twelve he began to appreciate how much more interesting and delightful than theirs his reality was.
Reuben was, I should also mention, quite devout. He had never had any cause, he said, to doubt the tenets of the Christian faith; and he clearly took deep joy in the Anglican hymnal, from which he was fond of singing snatches at odd moments. He told me that once or twice in his early years he had been challenged by persons of an Evangelical bent, who had sought to convince him that his view of reality was tainted with paganism or that he was in fact the prey of demons. He found their arguments unconvincing, however, and had developed a rather sophisticated theory (inspired in part by Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth) about terrestrial spiritual intelligences. To his mind, there were spirits abroad in most of nature, though perhaps not nearly as many as once there had been, who were to be counted among the more benign “powers” and “dominions” of the created order. Christians, he felt, had no cause to worry about them at all: For one thing, Paul assures us that Christ had subdued all the more recalcitrant spiritual agencies in the cosmos; for another, “They’re very affable for the most part, if you behave decently towards them.”
He also sometimes argued (partly inspired by the writings of Owen Barfield) that human consciousness may have changed rather drastically over the epochs, and that perhaps the very frame of nature has altered with it. He believed that at one time human beings had been much better able to perceive certain dimensions of reality that, with our modern mechanistic view of nature, we no longer can. Perhaps, he once opined to me, it all has something to do with the relative preponderance of the right and left hemispheres of the brains—though, as an enemy of all materialism, he was convinced that, if this was so, a change in our shared metaphysics had slowly altered the balance of the cerebral cortex, and not the reverse.
Whatever the case, he believed that in the past a doorway within us had been open in a way it generally is not now, and that the dream images and strange music and mystical poetry that came from another region of the soul had flowed into the conscious mind without much hindrance. Whatever that now-repressed capacity had been, however—whether a more influential right hemisphere or something else altogether—he was sure it was not a source of illusion but rather a window through which the light of reality had shone with greater clarity than through any other faculty within us. As far as he was concerned, he was simply one of those fortunate few in whom the causeway between the two sides of the self had not been tragically sealed off.
Read the whole thing. It’s the best short essay I’ve read in ages, and the ending — it may reduce you to tears– will stay with you, because if, like me, you’re a person of Tolkienish tastes, it exemplifies a civilizational tragedy.
This essay explains succinctly why I will always have more in common with my pagan friend Franklin Evans than I do with modernist Christians — even conservative ones.