The road of Excess leads to the palace of Wisdom.
If the Fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I don’t believe it can be done.
~~ Lao Tzu
The Catholic writer Charles Péguy once wrote: “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” Be that as it may, mysticism and politics were the poles between which the current of my post-WWII Baby Boom generation—or at least the “counter-culture” sector of it—primarily flowed.
I was born and raised as a Catholic in the pre-Vatican II Church; my entire formal education consisted of 14 years in Catholic school from nursery school and kindergarten through high school. Around 1966, however, my identification with Catholicism began to wane, just as the traditional Church and the sacramental order were being deconstructed, though at the time I was not entirely conscious of these developments. Nonetheless I expressed my feelings about them in my 1968 “short epic” poem Panic Grass:
Despair! Christ has burst your churches and
cracked your tabernacles wide,
and the Glory of God has fled into the mountains!
In the late 1960’s the pole of mysticism was best represented by the dharmic religions of Asia, Hinduism and Buddhism—or at least those aspects of them that survived importation into the West—the practice of which involved yoga, meditation, and veneration of the guru. These we promiscuously mixed with Shamanism (primarily Native American), Spiritualism, occultism, magic, the quest for psychic powers, and every non-traditional “spirituality” imaginable. Western Christian, Jewish and Sufi mysticism also played a part, though their influence was less central. And of course the whole mass was energized, and rendered increasingly chaotic, by the liberal use of LSD and other psychedelics.
The 60’s were the decade when the post-WWII civil rights movement, the growing popular interest in mystical spirituality, and the protest movement against the Vietnam War met and cross-pollinated. From, say, 1967 through the early 70’s, the dominant expression of the activist pole of Péguy’s dyad was the anti-war movement. To the people of my age group, late teens to early twenties—at least those of the hippy persuasion—this movement was more or less taken for granted as part of the zeitgeist. We would show up at riots and anti-war demonstrations in much the same spirit as we attended spiritual gatherings or rock concerts; they were simply part of the “scene”, and we were hell-bent on making that scene. Our older compatriots, particularly those with backgrounds in the civil rights movement, were often better-trained as serious activists, and tended to follow either various schools of Marxism, or else the non-violent resistance theories and tactics of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But I and my contemporaries in Marin County, California were little more than hangers-on. When the summer of 1967 was dubbed “Vietnam Summer”, we hung around the local V.S. office in San Rafael, intermittently acting as drivers, flyer-posters etc. But in most cases our “commitment” involved little study of political theory or training in the tactics of protest, nor did it (in most cases) grow out of any real personal insight based on serious thought or struggle. The military draft was enough to “radicalize” us, and the protest songs of the era were all the “theory” we felt we needed.
However, since we were attending anti-war demonstrations, patronizing the teachers to be found on the guru circuit, and dropping thermonuclear acid, it was natural that we would begin to ask ourselves how mysticism and politics might be brought together in a single practice. Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg and others had introduced such notions as intoning “OM” during demonstrations, in order to spread “waves of peace” and generally empower the movement whose operative word was—peace. So it was probably inevitable that the polarity between the radical encounter with Reality with a capital R provided by LSD (at least sometimes, and not without subtle negative consequences), and the various forms of militant collective blindness we were sworn to work against (though sometimes forced to participate in) during the course of that work, posited a “dialectic” of sorts. Thesis: “Everything is possible”. Antithesis: “History is an unstoppable juggernaut.” Synthesis—? (We’ll have to get back to you on that one—in this life or the next.)
For me and my emerging peer-group—the San Francisco poets—the 1970’s were a decade of introversion. The “consciousness” explosion of the 60’s was subsiding, leaving depression in its wake. Alcohol increasingly became the drug of choice, though not to the degree (heaven forbid) that it crowded out all the other drugs. Feminism was turning a cold fire-hose on the hippy love-fest, generally pooping the party. Where young people had traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area during the 60’s to be hippies, in the 70’s they went there either to be poets or to come out as gay—sometimes both. When I first met my Beat Generation poetic mentor, Lew Welch, in the late 1960’s, poets were few and far between—a handful of the Beats and a few of their younger protégés, such as myself, John Oliver Simon, David Meltzer, etc. A few years later there were an estimated five thousand poets in the Bay Area, whose collective efforts in the name of self-advertisement were one of the factors that has made poetry almost a hated art in this country. As the Marxist/leftist poets pursued their course with the help of Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo, we “deep image” poets were studying the Jungians, and devouring all the mythopoesis we could get our hands on, of whatever historical era, seeing it largely through Jungian eyes. In the terminology of the Bardo Thödöl (Tibetan Book of the Dead), the 1970’s were “the bardo of seeking rebirth”, the collective attempt to return to something like a human form, by sweeping up the dead leaves of the soul we’d shed along the road, after LSD and the cosmic melodrama of the 1960’s had blown us to the four winds.
The fitting end to this era was the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which foreshadowed a return to politics with a vengeance, and heralded an era in which religion would become more central to political struggle, in western world and the world as a whole, than it had been (perhaps) at any time since the Reformation and the Hundred Years War. The churches had become deeply involved in the anti-war movement of the 1960’s. This development was well represented in the Catholic world by various “radical priests” like the Berrigan brothers and by the tradition of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers movement; in the Evangelical Protestant world by Martin Luther King, the Sojourners community and others; and in Quakerism by the American Friends Service Committee, whose main focus in the 60’s had been support for conscientious objectors to the military draft. In the 1980’s, these various expressions of the North American “social gospel” tradition coalesced and gained a new impetus through the movement of solidarity with the revolutions of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, and the struggle to block large-scale U.S. intervention against them.
The theoretical context for the peace movement of the 1980’s was provided by Liberation Theology, which arose, mostly in Latin America, through a cross-pollination between radical leftist politics and the Catholic Church. The central ideologues of this movement included Dom Helder Camara, Gustavo Gurierrez, Leonardo Boff, Juan Luis Segundo, and Ernesto Cardenal, Catholic priest and poet, whose three-volume book of dialogues, The Gospel in Solentiname, was an important influence. Father Cardenal, who later became Minister of Culture of Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, had a parish on an island in an archipelago in Lake Nicaragua; his congregation was made up mostly of the local fishermen and women. But due to his international reputation as a poet and Marxist/Catholic intellectual, his parish became a place of pilgrimage for intellectuals, artists and revolutionaries from many parts of the world. Cardenal organized dialogues between the peasants, the local activists and the visiting intellectuals, who together began to develop a Theology of Liberation which was equally a creation of the intelligentia and the uneducated poor—a very interesting development in both political and cultural terms.
In the mid-1980’s, Liberation Theology appeared to my wife Jenny and myself as a viable way to unite religion (if not mysticism) and politics; we responded by joining a small Christian congregation in Marin County—Santa Venetia Presbyterian Church—that was active in the Sanctuary Movement for Central American refugees, along with many of the local Catholic churches. The pastor, Carolyn Studer, had wanted to participate in the Sanctuary Movement, so she stacked the Session (governing board) of her church with activist insurgents—us. This caused a few members of the church to leave, but most accepted this development in good faith. (This was a better outcome than was experienced by many churches that went through the same sort of “imposed radicalization” process in the 1980’s, which often led to serious splits in the congregations involved.) Consequently Jenny and myself remain lifetime elders of the United Presbyterian Church. [NOTE: “Santa Venetia” is the name of no Christian saint, but rather of a housing development in San Rafael, California, build around some tideland sloughs, which a developer in earlier decades had tried to market as a kind of “Venice by the Bay”, though I can’t imagine any place on earth that looks less like Venice.]
The precipitating events for the Sanctuary Movement included the murder of three American Maryknoll nuns in El Salvador for the crime of working with the peasants, and the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero—who had begun to denounce the death-squads— while he was saying Mass in his own church, by death-squad killers. I wrote a poem about Romero’s assassination which was published in the Maryknoll magazine.
The moral rationale for the Sanctuary Movement was as follows: Since it was well-known that the United States, with the help of the national War College, had provided training to the Salvadoran death squads, and that the terror in El Salvador was driving many Salvadoran from their country, we had a duty, both as Americans and as Christians, to protect those refugees who made it to the United States. The Salvadoran refugees, as illegal aliens, were considered to be criminals under federal law, so we resurrected the old tradition which held that criminals fleeing the civil authorities could be granted sanctuary in Christian churches, where they would remain exempt from arrest as long as they stayed on the church grounds. Not all the refugees we were working with lived on church property of course; nonetheless we invoked the spirit if not the letter of the old sanctuary rule to serve them.
During this period we re-connected with the San Francisco poetry scene. The “Caucasian” poets of the Left were partnering with the Latino poets of the Bay Area—like Roberto Vargas, who later became the Nicaraguan ambassador to China—to express solidarity with the revolutions of Central America; the main centers for this political/cultural ferment were the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco and La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley. I began collecting poems for a anthology in solidarity with the Salvadoran revolution; James Laughlin of New Directions had agreed to publish it. Then one of the Bay Area Salvadoran politicos “appropriated” the project (I probably should have fought to keep it), the upshot being that the anthology was never published. Another less-than-successful project was my attempt to bring Ernesto Cardenal, then Minister of Culture of Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, to the Bay Area. (Cardenal had studied under Father Thomas Merton at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Merton, also a poet, acted as a kind of spiritual adviser to the peace movement and the increasingly rudderless Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council, reaching out to Buddhists, to Sufis, to poets and peace activists—despite the fact that, to my way of thinking, he was becoming increasingly rudderless himself.) Cardenal and I corresponded for a short time, but nothing came of it; later he was invited to San Francisco by the more established poetry commisars of the Mission District, working in concert with Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books, who had published my Panic Grass. Poetry in this context was considered to be a kind of motivational tool. It was not quite propaganda, but it was nonetheless expected to fulfill a utilitarian function under the rubric of “cultural resistance”. During those days we became friends with people like poet Fernando Alegría, colleague of Pablo Neruda, who had been part of the Leftist Allende government in Chile. Allende, as you will remember, was assassinated in a military coup backed by the United States; his government was replaced by a junta headed by dictator Augusto Pinochet, known for his practice of “disappearing” his opponents.
One of the notable people we met during this time was Joan McCarthy. She had been a Catholic nun who was appointed mother superior of a convent in Mexico when she was hardly out of her teens; in that capacity she was treated as a kind of seeress by the Mexican peasants. Then at one point a choice was presented her: should she go to South America and become part of the Liberation Theology movement (under either Leonardo Boff or Dom Helder Camara, I forget which)? Or should she accept the invitation of a local “white” bruja (sorceress) to study traditional Mexican sorcery? She had partnered with the bruja to defend the peasants from oppression by the “black” brujos of the region, who at that point had a monopoly on medical care in the remote rural areas. Anyone who became ill had to resort to these people, who were most likely running a sort of protection racket, threatening to use their magic to make people sick instead of curing them if they didn’t pay up. Joan and the bruja were training young local men as herbal doctors so as to undercut the power of the brujos. The bruja had told her: “I will show you the powers of the Garlic Flower, of the Silver Sword, and of the Cross—but the greatest power is Love.” Joan, however, chose the path of Liberation Theology, and left for South America.
This story highlights one of the questions that will always come up when any attempt is made to unite mysticism and politics: the question of magic. Spiritual power is infinite, social conditions are finite—so why not simply “tap” the power of Spirit to transform social conditions? What is routinely forgotten when this question is posed is: whose agenda do we intend to follow? Is it we—as individuals, or as members of a movement—who have the right to say what spiritual power shall be used for? Is such power just sitting there passively in the higher worlds, like oil in the ground, waiting for whoever has the ability and the chutzpa to drill for it? Or does God Himself have a plan for the use of this power—a power which, of course, is exclusively His in any case? I remember how, on one occasion, Jenny and I attended a lecture on Mexican sorcery, by a rather unsavory young couple, at the La Peña Cultural Center. After the lecture I asked a question: “If there is such a thing as Liberation Theology, could there also be such a thing as Liberation Sorcery?” “It’s hard to use spells against bullets” the speaker answered. What I should have said—I’m still kicking myself for not thinking of it—was: “Yes—but think of the possibilities for of psy-ops and military intelligence.” (I later discovered that these possibilities had already been explored by the CIA in their “remote viewing” experiments.)
I had had already dabbled briefly in freelance sorcery in the early 1970’s, soon after the time when my poetic mentor, Beat Generation poet Lew Welch, introduced me to Carlos Castaneda at Lew’s “Full Moon Mussel Feast” at Muir Beach, California. (For those who don’t remember him, Castaneda was the one who introduced something that purported to be Native American sorcery to the American mainstream through his highly popular “Don Juan” books.) Through the use of the Castaneda techniques I was able to produce a few experiences of “non-ordinary reality” without the help of psychedelics. I ultimately concluded, however, that I had no compelling reason to pursue that path; it was only later that I began to realize how close I had come to the edge of the Abyss. It is my belief that the main attraction to magic for many people is a sense of powerlessness; this was certainly true in my case. Like the Tibetans say, “If you are strong, fight; if you are weak, curse.”
My closest and most convincing pass through the world of “non-ordinary reality”, however, involved the “psychic surgeons” of the Philippines, who are true white magicians. They operated on me several times, in both the Philippines and California, and I watched them operate on others. They definitely do have the ability to open the human body with their hands alone and remove foreign material, after which the incision spontaneously closes, like the water does when you lift your hands from a water-filled bowl. They once popped my eye out of its socket and then put it back again, and I experienced absolutely no pain. (Other Americans waiting to be operated on confirmed this to me—with shocked expressions.) Another patient told me how they had broken his deformed foot open, spread the sides apart, and then put it back together, also painlessly. The psychic surgeons use an ancient shamanic technique in which they work with “spirit-helpers” (i.e., the “good” Fairies or “faithful” Jinn); similar powers were reported by early anthropologists among certain primitive tribes, such as the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego. The present psychic surgeons of the Philippines are mostly Christians, and say that they and their helpers are working together under the direction of the Holy Spirit. However, after the last time I saw them, in California in the early 90’s, I dreamt of Antichrist, after which my Sufi advisor firmly suggested that I stop seeing them. I’m reminded of how, according to “perennialist” writer Martin Lings in A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century, the great Sufi shaykh Ahmed al-‘Alawi indulged in miraculous karamat (miracles, wonders) in his earlier life, all of which he later gave up, except for the practice of snake-charming—until he met Shaykh al-Buzaidi, who told him: “It would be better for you to learn to control the snake that lies between the two sides of your body.”
In the 70’s and early 80’s, under the influence of both the Castaneda books and another book entitled The Magic of Findhorn, I was in the habit of going “elf hunting” while hiking through the beautiful coastal woods of California, with or without the use of marijuana or stronger psychedelics. (J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was on the hippy reading-list, leading some of us to believe that, with the help of LSD, it would literally be possible for us to live like Hobbits, which resulted in the construction of a number of “Hobbit-houses” in Bolinas and Stinson Beach.) Finally I developed a combination of visualizations and breathing-exercises that allowed me, with no other aid, to allow my gaze to penetrate the screen of the forest into the Forest behind the forest, the place where the elves, the air-elementals and the tree-spirits live. My motive during these excursions was primarily “recreational” or “poetic”; what I didn’t realize at the time was that these experiences, for all their seemingly harmless lyricism, were beginning to thin out the substance of my essential humanity, and open doors through which much darker forces would later gain entry. But my greatest triumph as a “magus” was as follows: In the late 70’s, a few years before becoming involved with the Sanctuary Movement, I had used various methods adapted from both Castaneda and the Order of the Golden Dawn to produce what I thought of as a “rain charm” during a serious California drought; I incorporated into it the Golden Dawn symbol for the Water Element. [NOTE: The Golden Dawn was the occult/neo-Pagan society to which the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats belonged, as well as the black magician Aliester Crowley.] The charm “worked” in the sense that, soon after I produced it, the water pipes in my apartment broke—and then, after I gave the charm away to a woman I knew in Berkeley, the pipes in her apartment broke! Through these experiments I learned both that magic is “real”, and that it is not worth pursuing. From my present standpoint I can only marvel at what God let me get away with, since I could have easily have lost my mind, my life, or my soul. As it was—undoubtedly due to this sort of extremely dangerous foolishness, coupled with my use of psychedelic drugs and my abuse of kundalini yoga, which I practiced with no guidance whatsoever—I contracted a life-long over-sensitivity to dark psychic forces, and learned that once you pass, knowingly or unknowingly, through the region of the demonic, your name goes into the Devil’s rolodex. On the positive side, I gained a certain understanding of the methods and agendas of the Powers of Darkness, and also of the efficacy of traditional methods of petitionary prayer and spiritual prophylaxis for protection against them. Nonetheless, I must seriously discourage anyone else from making the same mistakes I did. If you go to war and get a leg blown off by a land mine, that experience might eventually result in some real spiritual growth for you—nonetheless, for obvious reasons, I can’t really recommend it.
Another happening related to the notion of magic is also relevant here: Years earlier, after ingesting some peyote, I found myself hiking on a trail through the meadow of Laurel Dell on Mt. Tamalpias. After a time I came upon two teenage girls at a camp site. They had set up a loud gasoline generator to power their primitive 1970’s devices; the smell and the racket were ruining the natural ambience. I considered myself an environmental warrior in those days, an enemy of technology, so I crouched some distance away and stared at the generator, willing it to cease. A few moments later one of the girls walked over and switched it off. Then she turned to her companion and said: “Why did we do that?” I’m sure they never saw me. I had no conscious intent to control their actions, yet apparently that’s what happened.
What can we learn from this? Two useful lessons come to mind: 1) If you intend to use self-will to control the world around you, magically or otherwise, you will eventually find yourself violating the integrity and the freedom of other people. 2) No matter how much personal power you feel you are applying—and to make two teenage girls do something they don’t want to do obviously requires a formidable degree of personal power—the very notion that you possess such power is having a greater effect on you than any effect the power you think you possess could possibly have on anything else. The magician is hyper-conscious of the influence he believes he is exerting on the world, but largely unconscious of the greater influence that the invisible world—possibly the demonic world—is exerting on him in the same moment. Seriously, who wants to become a psychic bully whose swelling sense of his own power only hides the withering away of his moral fibre and spiritual virility? What greater weakness can there be than the attachment to power? If you are addicted to personal power, you are a slave to it—whereas if you truly are a slave to God, if you can say with absolute sincerity “not my will but Thine be done”, then you are free.
At Santa Venetia, having moved one or two steps away from magic and closer to prayer, I started experimenting with a type of visualization I developed called Strategic Insight Meditation, “trying it out” on members of the congregation. The idea was to form a question as an image, submit it to the angelic plane or “higher self”, and receive an answer in return, also as an image. The only real success I had with this technique came several years later when I was working for a homeless service agency; with the help of Strategic Insight I was able to line up a living situation for a homeless couple. The problem with practices like this, however, is that they give the illusion that intuiting the Will of God and acting on it can be carried on simply as a “technique”, a way of manipulating information, without reference to one’s total moral and spiritual state. You can’t distance large portions of yourself from piety, devotion and submission to God, by defining spiritual intuition as no more than a kind of psychic “search engine”, and expect not to run into serious problems; if you attempt this—and most especially if you are “successful”—you will have opened yourself to spiritual delusion.
Also during my time in Santa Venetia I began experimenting with prayer networking for the purpose of empowering the Sanctuary Movement. On one occasion a n “informant” from El Salvador, under the sponsorship of the Reagan administration, was scheduled to testify before Congress about Russian involvement in the Salvadoran revolution; we in the movement were worried that this would be the prelude to large-scale U.S. intervention, not simply the kind of small-scale proxy war that was already going on. I responded by reaching out to the dozen or so branches of the Johrei Fellowship, a more or less New Age Japanese church whose central ministry was the channeling of a subtle healing power. The recipient sat across from the channeling minister, who then raised his or her hand, from which emanated—without physical contact—a subtle yet quite powerful psychospiritual energy; it was as if a cool wind of light were blowing through one’s atoms and molecules, flushing out dark clots and clouds of psychic impurity which, after being released from the subtle body, rose and disappeared into the sky. The Fellowship (which is still in existence) also channeled long-distance johrei (“divine light”) and forwarded prayer-intentions submitted by its members and fellow-travelers to the spiritual powers under whom they worked. So I wrote a letter to all the Johrei churches in the United States, asking them to pray not for any preconceived outcome to the upcoming Congressional hearings, but simply that the truth be served. The upshot was that the informant in question, contrary to all expectations, denied any Russian involvement in El Salvador. But the most interesting aspect of this exercise in “white magic” was the fact that the testimony took place before any of the prayer-requests I had sent could have been received and acted upon. Someone less “liminal” that I was at the time would simply have concluded that the prayers I had requested had had no real effect—and I certainly don’t blame anyone who accepts this as the most obvious and rational explanation. The lesson I drew from it, however, was an insight into the principle expressed in the Book of Isaiah, where God says: “Before they ask I will answer” (Isaiah 65:24). Spiritual causality is not limited by time; the influence of the First Cause does not arrive horizontally from the past, or even from the future, as in the case of Aristotle’s “final cause”—the notion that the ultimate goal of a particular action may be considered to be the actual cause of it—but rather descends vertically from Eternity. But if God answers prayers before they are formulated, what becomes of the “prayer of petition”? Doesn’t petitionary prayer lose all its function and meaning if the visible effect precedes the visible cause? Yes and no. If God knows “beforehand” what we will ask Him for, nothing prevents Him from answering prayers that we haven’t prayed yet, though of course we will never be able to prove the relationship between such prayer and its answer; in this case prayer of petition is transformed into prayer of thanksgiving. Furthermore, according to Sufi doctrine, we can only effectively petition God if He has commanded us to submit that petition, if He has said (in effect) “ask Me for something.” And if a particular outcome “was always going to happen anyway”, then the fact that someone prayed for that outcome was also always going to happen anyway; the prayer and its answer make up a single synthetic destiny. This principle is encapsulated in the prayer of the Sufi Bayazid Bistami, “O God, You know what I want”—the import of this being that if our petitions to God are actually reflections of His desire to grant those petitions, then the highest form of piety and submission to His Will is not to grasp after that desire by importuning Him, but to allow it to rest, undisturbed, within Him. In retrospect, I can now see that this attempt to apply spiritual force to political action was an important turning-point in my pilgrimage from the illusions of magic to the realities of submission to God, from “I will the good (or my idea of it) and call upon all spiritual powers to empower that will” to “not my will but Thine be done”.
In any case, for around two years in the mid-1980’s, a deep spiritual influence was moving through Santa Venetia Presbyterian Church, which was certainly felt beyond the boundaries of that congregation. The Holy Spirit was being poured out upon us, bringing together a powerful union of social action—rightly considered in Christian terms as a commitment to works of mercy—and God’s Grace expressed through love and fellowship. Add to this the high drama of opposition to the U.S. government, which would have earned many of us five years in Federal prison for conspiracy if the Feds had decided to move, and the result was a very potent mix indeed. Among other projects, we produced a video called “Through the Needle’s Eye” based on testimonies of Argentine woman refugees who has been tortured during Argentina’s Dirty Little War, which we presented in the context of similar events now taking place in Central America. I recited one of Jenny’s poems, written in sympathy and solidarity with the sufferings of the oppressed in El Salvador and elsewhere, and an American veteran of the Vietnam War formally apologized to the Argentine women for the actions of the U.S. government. We were told later that this video had helped other victims of torture find the courage to give their own testimonies. But for all the strength and truth of the Spirit that moved us, we remained without a vessel strong enough to contain that Spirit and apply it to the real heart of our spiritual lives. Many U.S. “progressive” Christians were being drawn to social action in those years. In one sense this was an overflow of the Christian charisma expressed through corporal works of mercy; in another, it was a way to stir up the dying embers of faith into a strong but temporary new blaze by seeking “relevancy”. In our own case, too much of the essence of the spiritual life was being lost in conflict with worldly conditions to allow for the deepening of our devotional and contemplative center. We were willing to struggle with the world in the name of God and make real sacrifices in the pursuit of our image of God’s justice, but we had little idea of the way, or the even need, to struggle with ourselves. Consequently the manifestation of the Spirit in and through us had a set limit to it; after that limit was passed, nothing was left for us but the outer darkness.
Various signs of the coming dusk began to appear. For one thing, it became clear to us that some of the various Salvadoran politicos we were working with were not being straight with us. On one occasion, during an event at the church, one young trickster, with narrow eyes and a sly smile, told us: “O no! There are no Communists fighting with the Salvadoran rebels! Rest assured (you stupid, gullible Norteamericano church people) that we are pure of that stain.” Satanist graffiti appeared above the church door. The building next door was purchased by the Da Free John organization and turned into his Marin County headquarters; busloads of hippy peons were shipped down from Clear Lake to work on the site. [NOTE: Da Free John was one of the ever-changing names of Franklin Jones, an American teacher in the Hindu yoga tradition with a background in the Psychedelic Revolution, a chela of (among others) Swami Mukhtananda—whose shaktipat I had once received—author of many highly intelligent and perceptive books, and a self-styled Avatar of God whose degree of realization apparently surpasses that of all the avatars, prophets, saints and gurus of the past; he is characterized by some as a cult-leader.] The mothers of the greater Santa Venetia community, whose “latchkey kids” attended a day care center on the church grounds, were up in arms when we voted to become a temporary homeless shelter. One of our congregants died by electrocution during an accident at work. Finally we realized that a couple of visitors to the church obviously thought they had walked in on some kind of cult meeting. We had definitely lost many of our personal boundaries due to the intensity of the group experience; had we become a cult? As our light faded, the Presbytery of the Redwoods, the church’s parent body, suddenly was no longer willing to indulge the antics of a “mission” church that was not pulling its own weight in financial terms. So things changed. We slowly drifted apart. Ultimately the church became host to a congregation of Korean Presbyterians.
With the end of Santa Venetia Presbyterian Church as we had known it, our identification with the Liberation Theology movement also ended. There is no question in my mind that without the large-scale involvement North American churches in the opposition to U.S. intervention in Central America, we would have seen a much greater bloodbath in that region, accompanied by a destabilization of much of the western hemisphere, most likely including the incursion of the Central American death-squads into the United States itself. And Liberation Theology, with its “option for the poor”, did base itself partly on the Gospel call for Christians to perform corporal works of mercy. Nonetheless a true marriage of Christianity and Marxism—that is, of theistic spirituality and atheistic materialism—is not a viable possibility in either theological or socio-historical terms. No matter how idealistically it might be pursued, such a proposal is contradictory, ill-conceived, and dishonest at the root. And the fact is, much of the spiritual potential of Christianity, and especially of the Catholic Church, was spent in the more or less successful attempt to block U.S. intervention in Central America. Real material good was done in the dimension of time; much spiritual good was lost in the dimension of eternity. And the fact is that the Catholic Church, after the rejection of its traditional dogma, the deconstruction of the sacramental order, the pedophilia scandal which resulted in the bankruptcy of whole archdioceses, the closure of many churches and the departure of millions of the faithful, no longer possesses the kind of social influence and moral authority that it spent so recklessly on helping the world in the 1980’s.
Elements of the U.S. Catholic Church have retained, even to this day, their commitment to helping Latin American immigrants illegally cross the border from Mexico to the United States that they embraced during the Sanctuary Movement. However, while some refugees from the south are still be fleeing political oppression, they are now accompanied by plenty of members of Mexican drug cartels and other criminal and/or terrorist organizations. And where, exactly, is the line between helping refugees and enabling human traffickers? According to National Public Radio—not a news-source where you’d expect to run into the kind of anti-immigrant sentiment usually identified with conservative Republicans—the immigration from El Salvador to the United States that began in the 1980’s has led to a vast increase in the power of the Salvadoran drug gangs. Salvadorans operating in the relative freedom of the U.S. have been able to build narcotics-trafficking networks much more easily than they could have in their native country, after which these networks are simply exported back to El Salvador. So times change. What is mercy and justice in one era can unexpectedly become cruelty and injustice in another. Politics is the art of the ephemeral.
At one point during our years with the Sanctuary Movement, an interesting and quite moving document was circulated, a statement by a woman guerrilla fighter somewhere in Latin America. She called upon the monastics of the Catholic Church not to abandon their contemplative vocation in order to become activists and revolutionaries (and, I would add, social workers), but rather to continue to man the post where God had stationed them. Unfortunately, from the standpoint of 2017, I can only conclude that, at least in terms of its “official” ideology, the Church—except for a tiny remnant of the traditional faithful—has remained largely deaf to her plea.
I had now reached a point in my activist career where I was subject to the common disease of disappointed idealism, or (in my case) “Leftist burnout.” We had discovered that the Salvadoran revolutionaries were not saints, that there was plenty of infighting among the various factions, and that even just and successful revolutions were often not able to maintain their earlier idealism—to say the least. I had seen several of my contemporaries, who had come to the same point, flip precipitously to the Right, becoming followers of William Buckley, etc. I vowed not to take that route—and so, rather than moving to the Right, I consciously decided to go up instead, to opt for subtler and more “spiritual” forms of activism.
Roughly contemporaneous with the Sanctuary Movement was the Anti-Nuclear Movement, in which poet Allen Ginsberg played an important role; the central and most successful element of that movement was the Nuclear Freeze campaign. In 1967 Ginsberg had been involved in a mass peace demonstration, along with 70,000 peace activists and acid-heads, which included an effort to levitate the Pentagon by the application of group psychic force. (Was anybody really serious about this possibility? And did it really matter?) Next year in ’68 he was leading troops of Om-ing demonstrators at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, a scene I made as well. I was there to hear the old 30’s radical haranguing the hippy and yippy (Youth Independent Party) crowds, nearly in tears, to the effect that “this is the 30’s all over again!”; to smell the tear gas and see the jeeps with their 50-calibre machine guns; to watch as the saintly hippy girl placed flowers in the rifle-barrels of the National Guard. In the late 70’s and into the 80’s, Ginsberg was a leader in the Anti-Nuclear Movement, in which capacity he composed a powerful poem entitled “Plutonean Ode” where he cursed the highly radioactive, artificial element plutonium, much as prohibitionist Carrie Nation in earlier years had cursed the Demon Rum. All these efforts well exemplified the “magical populism” for which the hippies were known.
By the Late 80’s, much of the impetus of the hippy magical populism was being carried on, in altered form, by the New Age Movement, whose style was less confrontational and who tended to act more through “psychic networks” of stay-at-homes than mass demonstrations, though they certainly had plenty of public events, largely in “workshop” form. The New Agers were adept at national and even global networking, and this at a time when the internet was still in its infancy.
So Jenny and I decided to take a two-year “tour-of-duty” through the New Age, partly as believers and partly as observers; I for one wanted to find out what (if anything) was left of the influence of the Spiritual Revolution of the 60’s. And since we entered more-or-less as activists, or with an activist background, it was natural for us to become involved with the “psychic peace movement”, as part of the collective oscillation of the “alternative” sector of the Baby Boom between the poles of mysticism and politics. Were we really exploring the potential of organized mass “consciousness” to change material conditions? Or were we just taking a well-earned vacation from realpolitic in a fantasy-cruise to Never-Never Land?
The first major manifestation of the psychic peace movement was the fabled Harmonic Convergence. Visionary artist José Arguëlles, in his book The Mayan Factor: Path Beyond Technology, had come up with his own interpretation of the prophesies supposedly to be found in the Mayan calendar, whose various cycles-within-cycles all ended, and began again, on August 16th and 17th, 1987. This notion was right in line with one of the major New Age myths, that of the impending “paradigm shift.” As the likelihood that we could actually construct a new society and a new world through creative labor continued to fade, the myth that everything was simply going to change over-night by a kind of collective miracle—often compared to the instantaneous “quantum leap” of an electron from one “shell” or energy-level of an atom to another—began to take hold. In line with this myth, all sorts of spooks, channeled entities and “ascended masters” appeared, doing their best to convince us that “it’s always darkest before the dawn” and that mass spiritual and social change for the better was right around the corner. The convergence of all the cycles of the Mayan Calendar was thus perfectly designed (so to speak) to dovetail with this notion of a paradigm shift.
Harmonic Convergence was the first and probably the last international folk-event—though, as we shall see, it was not as spontaneous an expression of the global counterculture as we had been led to believe. Hippy/New Age missionaries fanned out across the globe, informing not only the Euro-American New Age counterculture, but North American Indians, British Pagans, Russian Theosophists and Shamans, Australian Aborigines, even the Mayans themselves that a big spiritual opportunity was on the horizon. If we all pooled our psychic energy and spiritual intent, according to whatever spiritual tradition or ritual form or magical technology we happened to be following at the time, together we could save the world, usher in a New Age for humanity. As the Big Days approached, my wife and I made a connection with an organization of New Age yuppies called Global Family, in one of whose offices we first encountered the wonder of networked personal computers, and were informed that these computers were actually talking to other computers in Russia—right now! This led me to conclude in later years that Harmonic Convergence and similar events provided a kind of psychic template for the spread of the internet, and that the New Age movement actually functioned as a tender-minded advance guard for the globalization process and the push for One World Government. Certainly there was, and is, a lot of One World idealism in the New Age, as well as a wide cross-pollination between various large, established, well-funded New Age/Interfaith organizations, such as Esalen Institute, Share International and the World Parliament of Religions, and the think-tanks of the globalist elites. New Age teacher Barbara Marx Hubbard, for example—heir to the Yo-Yo fortune (yes, you heard me correctly) and past honors graduate in political science from the Sorbonne—went on to become one of the directors of the World Future Society along with Robert McNamara (formerly the U.S. Secretary of Defense and president of the World Bank), Maurice Strong (who had been secretary general of the UN Conference on Environment and Development), and scholars from Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the University of Maryland. Most of us who had entered the New Age from the hippy counterculture simply took leaders like Hubbard as “our people”; we almost never asked ourselves, or anybody else, what powerful established interests might have sent leaders like her to lead us, and exactly what destination they might be leading us to.
On August 16 & 17, 1987 I found myself leading a ceremonial circle on Mt. Tamalpais, in Marin County, California; it was my first and last appearance as a “New Age teacher”. A little before the Convergence I had met and talked with José Arguëlles, who told me something appropriately flattering—appropriate for recruitment, that is—and in any case the event itself seemed to go off well, without any obvious catastrophies, either physical or psychic. And yet….
Concurrently with my interest in the New Age I had begun to become seriously involved in what came to be called “group dreamwork”, under the influence of the Castaneda books, the “Seth” material channeled by spirit medium Jane Roberts, and the various studies of dream incubation and lucid dreaming that were being carried on in the scientific community, by Stanford University’s Stephen LeBerge and other serious investigators. To Sigmund Freud the term dreamwork denoted the process through which the psyche manufactures dreams. The New Age, however, to whom the term “light workers” was familiar (we of the spiritual avant garde, laboring to effect the great Paradigm Shift, were all “light workers”), used the term “dreamwork” to describe the activities of those involved not only in dream interpretation, but also in dream incubation, lucid dreaming, and the notion of applying insights and powers derived from dreams to the transformation material conditions. Here we can see, in this radical re-definition of the word “work”, how one element of the New Age ethos was a kind of sublimated, volatilized, psychologized Marxism; probably as good an example as any of this tendency was Theosophical Society spinoff Benjamin Crème.
According to the worldview of Shamanism, it is the Shaman’s role to heal whatever disease and social disharmony may affect his tribe, as well as finding game, controlling the weather, carrying out criminal investigations, and protecting the tribe from attack by outside forces, human or otherwise. The Shaman would go into an altered state of consciousness—often after some rigorous ordeal—discover the nature of the problem and the proper cure for it, either in vision or in the dream-state, then return to “consensus reality” to deliver his message, and in some cases organize the tribe to conduct the proper rituals to rebalance the cosmic forces and dispel the menace.
Looked at from this perspective, Harmonic Convergence was a kind of mass Shamanic ritual for the healing of the Earth. Consequently it was only natural that some, including myself, would take it as a collective initiation into benign form of Shamanism for the purpose of dealing with global problems. Shortly after the Convergence I put out a call, through the New Age networks, for accounts of any significant dreams the people participating had dreamed on August 16 & 17, 1987, or shortly after. I received quite a few dream descriptions, from North America and several other parts of the world, and bound them into a still-unpublished manuscript I titled The Harmonic Convergence Book of Dreams. A comparison of the symbols to be found in these dreams demonstrated, at the very least, the reality of the “group mind”. For example, two symbols which appeared in the dreams of several people from widely different locales were the Horse and the Octahedron—images which had not been specifically emphasized in the literature leading up to the Convergence. Next, I organized a short-lived dream network called Gate of Horn, where the dreamers would do their best to incubate dreams on the dark of the Moon every month in an attempt to find solutions to the particular global menace that month’s dreamwork was focused on. (In the mythology of ancient Egypt, false dreams were supposed to come through the Gate of Ivory, true ones through the Gate of Horn.) Nothing much came of this attempt, and the group soon disbanded.
And Harmonic Convergence was not the last international New Age peace event. The year after the Convergence a mass peace-prayer event took place, the International Day of Peace; it was conceived and organized by Avon Mattison and her seminal organization, Pathways to Peace. I participated in this event as well, which became a yearly happening, and through my past connection with the Presbyterians I was able to introduce a resolution in support of the International Day of Peace to the General Assembly of the United Presbyteran Church. It passed—though from my present standpoint I cannot imagine a more useless “political” achievement.
Last but not least, with the help of Global Family and Dr. Stanley Krippner of the Saybrook Institute, I organized something called The U.S-Soviet Dream Bridge. Global Family, along with other New Age organizations, had become involved with “citizen diplomacy” with the Soviet Union, something Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost had made possible for the first time. New Age citizen diplomats from the United States were connecting with their Russian counterparts, many of whom, including various Shamans and Theosophists, had been suppressed by the Soviet regime but were now able to practice openly. The idea of the Dream Bridge was for American and Russian dreamers to incubate dreams on the same night, so as to establish (for what good reason I never really asked myself) a psychic connection between our two nations. The only result that in any way fit the bill was the image of a rustic cabin which appeared to both an American dreamer and a Russian one—and on this firm and rock-solid foundation we would proceed to built (wouldn’t we?) the everlasting temple of world peace.
Then—suddenly, providentially—I stopped short and said to myself: “Charles, what the hell have you been up to?” I realized that I had gone too far in too many unknown directions, into a world without guides or signposts, but not without powerful psychic influences pushing their own agendas, most of which I was probably unconscious of. So at that point I turned 180 degrees, and made for the world of traditional esoteric spirituality with all deliberate speed—specifically, the province of Islamic Sufism, known in Arabic as tasawwuf. No more spiritual freelancing for me, no more devising my own meditations, no more inventing my own religions. It all had to end some time, so it was best to end it right now.
But why Sufism? The true and sufficient answer is, “because God willed it”. It is nonetheless possible, and not entirely irrelevant, to say something about the interlocking contexts in which that Will began to appear.
To begin with, it was obvious to me that the New Age impetus had peaked. At a gathering at the home of Barbara Marx Hubbard in Mill Valley shortly after the Convergence, I saw the same stunned “what now?” look on every face. Had we shifted the paradigm? Had we brought in the New Age? Do I feel any different? Do you? Did anything really happen at all? In addition, certain unsettling signs began to appear in the area of dreamwork I was exploring. One of the world-class dreamers I had become involved with was Barbara Shor, who was at the cutting edge of self-directed research into the practice of group dreaming. She had mentally “constructed” a site in the Imaginal Plane that she called The Octagonal Room; she and her fellow dreamers would agree to meet there on certain nights. Often they actually did see each other, experienced similar environments, exchanged words, and clearly remembered their experiences upon awakening. In other words, Barbara and her compatriots had gone a long way toward experimentally establishing the objective reality of the Psychic or Imaginal Plane, just as I had done—in a much less striking way—in the Harmonic Convergence Book of Dreams and the U.S.-Soviet Dream Bridge. I’m very glad that I didn’t participate in any of her experiments, however, seeing that a number of members of the dream group became involved in serious accidents or developed unexpected physical ailments, as if their radical excursions into the common landscape of dreams had somehow drained their essential life energy. Barbara Shor herself, not too long after the Octagonal Room experiments, contracted a rare blood disorder, of which she eventually died. So the need for a stable spiritual path and some true and reliable guidance was impressed upon me in no uncertain terms.
Before the Convergence and in preparation for it, I had attended a “Neo-Shamanic” workshop taught by one Richard Dobson, who had a background in Sufism, specifically the Nimatullahi Order based in Iran. When I met him he was apparently on the path from Sufism to Shamanism (though he might have been practicing both concurrently for some time), whereas I was traveling in the other direction, though I didn’t know it yet. Also, soon after we departed from Santa Venetia, my wife and I began attending the Dances of Universal Peace, founded by Samuel Lewis, affectionately known as “Sufi Sam”, who had grown up in Fairfax, near my home town of San Rafael. Samuel Lewis, whose style was fairly loose and heterodox, was a kind of bridge figure between the hippies and the world of real Sufism, in the days before the more orthodox Sufi groups arrived in the States. Nonetheless he possessed a valid initiation from the Chishti Order. As in the case of Carlos Castaneda, Lewis was first introduced to me by my poetic mentor Lew Welch, who met him when Sam enrolled in Lew’s poetry class at the U.C. Extension in San Francisco. I experienced The Dances of Universal Peace, more commonly known simply as “Sufi Dancing”, as a harmless, benign and uplifting form of devotion to God, though they seemed to have little in common with Sufism and Islam as I later came to know them. They helped us heal the emotional wounds we had suffered when Santa Venetia Presbyterian Church descended into darkness.
But an infinitely more important influence was the discovery, by my wife Jenny, of the Traditionalist/Perennialist School and the books of Frithjof Schuon.
For most of our married life, Jenny has been the first to catch wind of major new developments; for example, she was the one who first “discovered” the movement in solidarity with the revolutions of Central America. Previously she had found the books of Marie-Louise Von Franz, probably the most interesting of the Jungians, whose most important work was in the area of the psychological exegesis of fairy tales, which she also related to dream interpretation. Next Jenny discovered the intriguing books of “Neo-Sufi” Idries Shah, collector (and also part author?) of the corpus of the humorous yet perceptive Nasruddin stories, probably best described as Muslim folk tales. Most of Shah’s output was in the form of Sufi “teaching stories”, similar in style to the tales of the Hasidim. He also produced several very insightful books on the collective psychology of human self-deception, as well as an overview of the Sufi tradition—valuable though not without a few worrisome errors—that was praised by Robert Graves. Reading Shah’s books was like eating popcorn; you could go through a whole bag of them in no time. Unfortunately, he was also one of those so-called Sufis who claim that Sufism can be separated from Islam, which is like believing that the Franciscan Order of monks could become a religion of its own, outside Catholicism—though I don’t mean to imply that something that crazy couldn’t actually happen, given the craziness of the times and the ongoing dissolution of the Roman Catholic Church.
The books of Frithjof Schuon, however, were on an entirely different level. His works on traditional metaphysics and comparative religion raised the entire discourse on spiritual subjects to a higher intellectual level. Through Schuon we discovered the other writers of the Traditionalist or Perennialist School, including René Guénon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Julius Evola, Titus Burckhardt, Marco Pallis, Martin Lings, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Whitall Perry, Charles LeGai Eaton and quite a few others.
Schuon was a Muslim and a Sufi, but he is most often identified with the principle he called The Transcendent Unity of Religions, which holds that God has sent more than one valid revelation to humanity, that all these revelations or wisdom traditions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, as well as such “First Nations” spiritualities as the Native American Sun Dance—are speaking, from their widely-differing points of departure, about the same Transcendent Principle (God to the Christians, Allah to the Muslims etc.), and each one of them—if it remains intact—provides a complete Path of Return to that Principle. Certain verses of the Qur’an say essentially the same thing. Nonetheless the differences between the religions are also necessary and providential, since they were designed by God to operate within different cultural frameworks and appeal to different human types. Consequently to promiscuously mix the religions—for example, by attempting to practice more than one religion at the same time—was wrong-headed and destructive, and unnecessary as well, given that, in Schuon’s words, “each religion contains all the religions, because the Truth is One”.
I remember an occasion, after Jenny had begun reading Schuon’s books, when we were sitting in our car on the grounds of the San Francisco Theological Seminary in Ross, California. I was in the process of spouting New Age platitudes, going on about the paradigm shift and the imminent appearance of a new revelation, when Jenny stopped me cold: “No!” she said. “There will be no paradigm shift. Islam was the last revelation.”
Something within me really heard her in that moment—and, as William Blake put it, “the truth cannot be told so as to be understood, and not be believed.” So I immersed myself in the books of Frithjof Schuon, his predecessors and his colleagues; they produced a true and complete metanoia in my spiritual outlook. From René Guénon, often called the “founder” of the Traditionalist School, I not only learned more about his own version of the Transcendent Unity of Religions, as well as the Primordial Tradition from which the divine revelations ultimately branched, but also about the difference between true and false religion, between Tradition and Counter-Tradition. Guénon had been raised a Catholic as I had; largely between the World Wars he immersed himself in every form of occultism and pseudo-religion he could find, just as I had done (though not so extensively) in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s—Theosophy, Spiritualism, Martinism, the occultism of Eliphas Levi, Neo-Gnosticism—from which he emerged with the unshakable conviction that these various “alternative” religions were nothing less than the many manifestations of the Powers of Darkness, which together constituted what he called the “Counter-Initiation”. At the same time he was studying and seeking initiation into and writing books about what he came to consider the true and valid wisdom-traditions and spiritual Ways: the Hindu Vedanta, Taoism, Islamic Sufism. He hoped to re-awaken the Catholic Church to its own metaphysical and esoteric traditions through an understanding of the eastern religions where traditional metaphysics and esoterism were more intact—he dialogued for a time with Catholic Neo-Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain—but ultimately he despaired of this hope, converted to Islam, accepted initiation into a Sufi order, and left Europe for Egypt, never to return.
All this gave me quite a bit to chew on. If anybody had ever mixed religions, it was certainly me. And without a doubt I had been deeply involved in spiritualities that were clearly counter-initiatory according to Guénon’s criteria. Nonetheless I had always maintained my interest in the traditional revelations, side-by-side with the more suspect beliefs and influences of hippy and New Age spirituality. But somewhere, in my heart of hearts, I had given the traditional revelations precedence. My pre-Vatican II Catholic education had taught me that there is such a thing as a science of metaphysics, and given me an instinctive feel for what a religion is, a revelation sent by God to man; both these lessons were of great help when I began my investigation of the non-Christian religions while still in my teens. But it was not until I plunged into the writings of the Traditionalist School that I realized that the non-traditional spiritualities were not simply of lesser value than the traditional religions, but were in many cases actually opposed to them—sometimes naively and unconsciously, sometimes consciously, actively, and with a ruthless and openly-declared determination to sweep them off the face of the earth. This realization ultimately led me to write what some have called my magnum opus, The System of Antichrist: Truth and Falsehood in Postmodernism and the New Age, which came out in 2001. In that book, besides providing a comparative eschatology based on the end-time prophesies of eight religious traditions—in a deliberate attempt to “update” René Guénon’s prophetic masterpiece The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times—I also provided a detailed refutation, according to the principles of traditional metaphysics, of a number of New Age belief-systems, most of which I myself had accepted at one time. These included the “sorcery” of Carlos Castaneda, the channeled “Seth” material of Jane Roberts, and A Course in Miracles. In the process of composing The System of Antichrist, I “wrote myself out” of both the hippy counter-culture and the New Age.
If I had been “ripe” for a serious commitment to the spiritual Path in the 60’s, I might have gone for some form of hippified Hindu yoga—for which one of the textbooks would certainly have been Be Here Now by Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), whose lectures I had attended in both the U.S. and Canada—or possibly the kundalini yoga of Sikh guru Yogi Bhajan, whom I met on one occasion. If I had ripened in the 70’s my choice would likely have been Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the brand brought to the west by Chögyam Trungpa, a tulku (recognized incarnation of an earlier teacher) of the Kagyu Lineage. Trungpa appealed to many of those in both the hippy and the Beat generations who were looking for ways to “clean up their act” after the excesses of the 60’s. Once again it was Allen Ginsberg who led the migration of seekers from two generations of American Bohemia toward Tibetan Buddhism and the Vajrayana. I myself was more or less on the edge of this movement. I never visited Trungpa’s main headquarters, the Naropa Institute (now University) in Boulder, Colorado, but I did attend a meditation retreat with him at The Tail of the Tiger in the foothills of the Rockies. Trungpa’s books exhibited a rare mix of intelligence, accessibility and relevance to the times. His teaching style blended the traditional Vajrayana with what I can only call a reckless degree of openness to the U.S. counterculture. I view Trungpa as a kind of “berserker” who exposed himself to many dangers as he plunged into the fading world of the “Spiritual Revolution” of the hippies so as to bring the Vajrayana to the west, whatever the cost might be to himself personally. And that cost was pretty steep. At one point, during a drunken party, he sent his “vajra guards” to seize and strip poet W.S. Merwin and his fiancée. This event precipitated what later came to be called The Great Naropa Poetry Wars (which is also the title of a book about the incident by Tom Clark). Poet Ed Sanders, of the New York rock band the Fugs, mounted an investigation into the incident—which Trungpa immediately co-opted by offering to let him teach a course at Naropa on “Investigative Poetics”. Sanders took him up on his offer. I myself played a brief and peripheral role in the Poetry Wars through an epistolary dialogue with Allen Ginsberg, who adopted the “pro-Trungpa” position vis-à-vis my “anti-Trungpa” stance. Ultimately Chögyam Trungpa’s alcoholism got the better of him; he ended up dying of cirrhosis of the liver.
The fact is, however, that I became ripe for a serious commitment to the spiritual Path only in the 1980’s—the decade when, mostly through the work of Robert Bly and Coleman Barks, the Sufi teacher Jalalluddin Rumi emerged as the most popular poet in the English-speaking world, just as more-or-less traditional Islamic Sufism was becoming established in the West. Seen from this point-of-view, my choice of Sufism as a spiritual path was little more than a function of its availability and my readiness.
But that’s neither the whole story nor the real story. When I was maybe six years old, I had my first “lucid” dream, which featured a pair of North African marabouts or Sufis in white jellabas, their faces black. This dream was so powerful that whenever my life has gone through a major change I’ve returned to it, each time seeing new aspects to its symbolism, which continues to be relevant and enlightening no matter what point-of-view I see it from. So the truth is, I was destined for Sufism from the beginning.
My wife and I joined the Nimatullahi Sufi Order under Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh in 1988, though she moved on a few years later. As for myself, I had had enough of flitting from flower to flower in the spiritual life; now I wanted the Hive. So I said to myself: “Stop, choose one path, stay with it, and sink or swim.” So I sat in the Nimatullahi circle for twenty years, rarely saying more than a few words, and concentrating on two themes: Remember God and forget yourself, and put God’s will above your own will—even your will to see Him and be united with Him. By this method I allowed Him to slowly recollect my scattered psyche, disordered by years of alcohol and drug use, psychic experimentation and mis-guided spiritual aspiration. [NOTE “Forget yourself” does not mean “ignore the actions and agendas of your nafs, your lower self”; it means “stop working to build and maintain your identity, and stop making claims.”] Before the Nimatullahis I had become what anyone today would recognize as an alcoholic—but as soon as I stepped for the first time into the Nimatullahi khaniqa (Sufi lodge) in San Francisco, I never took another drink. I smoked marijuana four or five times after that, but after a few years it too disappeared from my life.
The central teachings and practices of the Nimatullahis were those of classic Islamic tasawwuf; one of the reasons I had chosen them was that they were on Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s list of traditional Sufi orders. However, they tended to identify “Islam” with the exoteric aspect of religion and “Sufism” with the esoteric aspect, but in such a way that its intrinsic relationship to exoteric Islam, its identity as Islam’s inner spiritual core, remained uncertain. The Iranian Revolution had been traumatic for the Sufis of Iran, particularly those who had accepted a degree of patronage from the Shah—as Dr. Nurbakhsh might have done, at least according to certain indications. The Sufi orders have suffered persecution under the Iranian Revolutionary government; the fact that the Nimatullahis maintain khaniqas in the Western nations has undoubtedly placed them under a certain amount of suspicion. And it is true that the Islamic character of the Order slowly faded during the years I was connected with them; for one thing, the Muslim daily prayer (salat in Arabic, namaz in Persian) was gradually discontinued, though it remained “optional” for the dervishes (Sufis) in their own homes. Nonetheless the Order maintained much of the structure and ambience of traditional Persian Sufism. While I was sitting with the Nimatullahis, it was as if I were living through the long, golden sundown of a profound and ancient spirituality. I have no doubt that Dr. Nurbakhsh had attained a very high spiritual station—but as the connection of the Nimatullahi Order with Islam and its Prophet continued to weaken, I had the impression that it was becoming less and less possible for the dervishes to derive real benefit from the Master’s spiritual attainments. It felt to me as if we were attempting to draw spiritual light from his individual person rather than his transcendent function. And since it is impossible to really participate in the spiritual destiny of another, this left me with a kind of “so near yet so far” feeling, though I have no way of knowing whether anyone else felt that way. People came, stayed, left, but their reasons for moving on were never shared and never discussed.
Concurrently with my connection to the Nimatullahis I extensively explored the Traditionalist or Perennialist School; in the decade of the 90’s my wife and I immersed ourselves In that world. Jenny accepted initiation in Schuon’s Maryamiyya Tariqa through Schuon’s muqaddam (representative), Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, though I remained with the Nimatullahis. Later, with Schuon’s blessing, Jenny converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. We met and became friends with Prof. Huston Smith, a true “gentleman and a scholar”, who was also connected with the Maryamiyya, We used to meet at his home for Chinese takeout and delightful informal discussions of spiritual themes; I would drive him to his lectures from time to time, and man the book table. We visited Dr. Nasr in Washington D.C., and also became acquainted with Christian Perennialists Alvin Moore, Jr., who was Eastern Orthodox, and Dr. Rama Coomaraswamy. Rama, who had been Mother Theresa’s cardiologist, was a sede vaccantist Catholic and the closest thing to an informal spiritual guide that Jenny and I had ever known. He was the son of Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy, who is sometimes considered, along with René Guénon, to be co-founder of the Traditionalist School. In his later years he gave up his practice as a surgeon due to ill health, and retrained both as a psychiatrist and as a traditional Catholic priest. In the latter capacity he became an exorcist in the New York area and a colleague of Fr. Malachi Martin, with whom I corresponded briefly. It’s my belief that Rama Coomaraswamy was something on the order of an intrinsic exorcist. Though burdened with ill health and his struggle to preserve what remained of the Catholic Church, and far from what we would think of as a “charismatic” personality, there was a powerful spiritual light coming out of him.
During this time, through my wife’s influence, I was drawn into the outer circles of Russian Orthodox Spirituality in the Bay Area, though I was careful to maintain my Sufi Muslim practices and connections. Huston Smith introduced us to James Cutsinger, Eastern Orthodox Perennialist and one of Frithjof Schuon’s “Christian muqaddams”. Jenny discovered the books of Fr. Seraphim Rose, who had been Alan Watts’ secretary in the pre-hippy era. Later he converted to Orthodoxy and was ordained a priest under the influence of the great latter-day Orthodox saint, John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco, who was Archbishop of San Francisco for the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, founded by pious White Russian emmigrés after the Communist takeover. St. John Maximovitch was a theologian, a hierarch and a “fool for Christ”—roughly equivalent to the malamatiyya in the Sufi world, the “people of blame”, who engage in “unorthodox” behavior so as to mortify their social vanity and that of their followers. But he was, above all, a great wonderworker, known for his many miracles of healing, clairvoyance etc., both during his life and through his intercession from the next world after his death. His relics are presently in repose in the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Joy of All Who Sorrow on Geary Street, which some have described as “the most sacred site in North America.” The spiritual energy of the place is truly formidable; the glass coffin housing his naturally-mummified remains is like a gate to Paradise.
Under St. John Maximovitch’s patronage, Seraphim Rose and others founded the Christ the Savior Brotherhood, which acted as a kind of bridge between Orthodox Christianity and the hippy Spiritual Revolution, providing the young people of that world with an alternative to the promiscuous religiosity of the counterculture. On one occasion we visited their monastery at Plátina in the Northern California Coast Range, where Fr. Seraphim is buried. Related to the Christ the Savior Brotherhood is the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood which continues to publish Seraphim Rose’s writings. His books, which show the influence of René Guénon—especially Fr. Seraphim’s sections on social criticism—are of great value. My favorite is The Soul After Death, in which he makes a clear distinction between such things as “near-death experiences” and the “thanatology” of writers like Elizabeth Kübler-Ross on the one hand, and traditional Orthodox teachings on the nature and significance of death on the other. According to Fr. Seraphim, the pop thanatology of the New Age may have some insight into the initial separation of soul and body, but it is completely ignorant of, and consequently tends to deny, the next and most crucial stage of the death process: the judgment of the soul by God.
Under the influence of the Traditionalists, of Seraphim Rose (to a degree) and of Islamic Sufism, I began to churn out books on traditional metaphysics, comparative religion, comparative eschatology, UFOlogy (one of Fr. Seraphim’s areas of research), demonology, the metaphysical exegesis of mythopoesis, and spiritual psychology, from 2001 till the present day. I did what I could to update Guénon’s critique of false spiritualities, and apply Schuon’s doctrines to various areas he neglected, or wasn’t particularly interested in, including traditional folk ballads (though Ananda Coomaraswamy had apparently planned to write a book on that subject) and the western romantic tradition. The Traditionalist/Perennialist world was rich with intellectual stimulation and went a long way toward helping me purify my soul, on the intellectual level at least, from the false notions I had embraced in my years with the hippy counterculture and the New Age. This is not to say that Perennialism didn’t have certain problems of its own. Frithjof Schuon for one, like so many “gurus”, Catholic priests and Evangelical Protestants in the late 20th century, was hit with major sexual scandals, though nothing was ever proved against him. We never met Schuon in person, though we visited his group in Bloomington, Indiana a number of times after his death in 1998.
Despite the scandals and the reports of various disgruntled followers from the Schuon world we encountered over the years, I would certainly recommend that anyone who is serious about the spiritual Path, unless he or she has already embraced an entirely congenial version of it, should read the profound works of the Traditionalists. As for myself, I feel that I have absorbed from them all I was destined to absorb, which is why I now consider myself a “graduate” of the Traditionalist School. But though I call myself a graduate, and am now concentrating almost exclusively upon Islam and the Sufi path, still, I haven’t thrown away my diploma. For some spiritual temperaments, the Traditionalists/Perennialists are the best possible introduction to comparative religion and traditional metaphysics. Like virtually no-one else in the modern world, they have enunciated certain necessary principles relating to religion, its source in God, and its relationship both to the metaphysical order and to human society and history. I believe that a knowledge of these principles is indispensible if we are to correctly orient ourselves to the spiritual quality of our time: a time of enforced religious pluralism, of the weakening, adulteration and perversion of the ancient Divine revelations and wisdom traditions, as well as of the availability of unexpected channels of Grace—the sort of Grace that our apocalyptic times require, and that God has therefore mercifully provided.
That said, we also need to face the unfortunate fact that principle of the Transcendent Unity of Religions, though I accept it as entirely true, is highly susceptible to misinterpretation and inversion. These all-too-common distortions have tended to take three main forms:
- The notion that the Transcendent Unity of Religions is a religion in itself, that it represents a new divine revelation. Frithjof Schuon and others rejected this idea, yet it sometimes re-asserts itself on the sly when no one is looking. This is the point at which Perennialism is in danger of being adulterated with various New Age doctrines.
- The idea that an understanding of the Transcendent Unity of Religions represents the highest station of esoteric metaphysical insight and mystical realization, higher than anything available to those who accept the validity of only a single religion. It is uncertain whether or not Schuon believed this, though his notions of “quintessential esoterism” and “plenary esoterism” suggest that he might have.
- The tendency of the doctrine of the Transcendent Unity of Religion to appeal to those globalist elites who wish to crown their One World Society with a One World Religion. In my book The System of Antichrist: Truth and Falsehood in Postmodernism and the New Age I expressed the opinion that Antichrist—the one Muslims call al-Dajjal, the Deceiver—will emerge from the conflict between globalism and the various violent “tribalist” reactions against it. Given the fact that the established Interfaith Movement, where much of the groundwork for a One World Religion is being prepared, is extensively funded and influenced by the globalist elites, the readiness of certain present-day Perennialist figures to embrace “worldly ecumenism”—something that Schuon and his colleagues flatly rejected—is worrisome, to say the least.
At this point the reader might ask: “If the Transcendent Unity of Religions is so problematic, why don’t you just forget about ‘comparative religion’ and concentrate on Islam as the true religion sent by God?” I have four good reasons for not taking that course. First, my wife is a Christian. Secondly, we can all see, in these formidable times, how the blindness, the hatred and the violence that spring from militant religious exclusivism produce inhuman agendas which are so destructive that they undermine even the religions in whose name they are carried out. Thirdly, I’ve come to know what saints are, and have seen that religions other than Islam are capable of producing them. Saints are the proof. Fourth and last, the Transcendent Unity of Religions is confirmed by the following verses from the Holy Qur’an:
He has revealed unto you (Muhammad) the Scripture with truth, confirming that which was (revealed) before it, even as He revealed the Torah and the Gospel. (3:3)
Say (O Muhammad): ‘O people of the Scripture: Come to a word that is just between us and you, that we worship none but God, and that we associate no partners with Him, and that none of us shall take others as lords besides God.’ (3:64)
And do not dispute with the followers of the Book except by what is best, except those of them who act unjustly, and say: We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, and our God and your God is One, and to Him do we submit. (29:46)
Verily! Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. (2:62)
According to the famous proverb of William Blake, “If the Fool would persist in his folly he would become wise”. I would only add: “If he survives.” After finding the Traditionalist School and the Sufi way, I felt myself well out of the world of political activism. The “lesser jihad” against the evil of the world will never be won, but the “greater jihad”—the war against the nafs, the conscious/unconscious ego, seat of the passions—God willing can be won.
When you’re out of the game, you can reflect on the game. When you no longer identify with a particular mass movement or political agenda or collective worldly hope, you can contemplate in (relative) tranquility what you once enthusiastically supported or violently condemned. And since you are no longer a True Believer, you are willing to entertain the possibility that what you once identified with was not really worth your allegiance, that it had many negative elements and consequences, even that it was in some ways a swindle of massive proportions.
As my experiences with psychedelic drugs, including marijuana, receded into the past, I could afford to recall and meditate upon the fact that LSD was first distributed in the United States by the CIA, partly in the context of the infamous MK-ULTRA mind-control program, which included experiments practiced upon unsuspecting American citizens that were worthy to stand beside those conducted in the Nazi death-camps (see the researches of David McGowan, Henry Makow and Peter Levenda). Timothy Leary was assigned to feed acid to the intelligentsia, Ken Kesey to everybody else; apparently the idea was to compare how it acted under “controlled conditions” with its effects in a totally free-wheeling, “party” atmosphere. And the hippies actually knew about this! They routinely said, “SURE we were a CIA experiment, man—an experiment that GOT OUT OF CONTROL!” Nor was the Agency simply interested in mind-control on the individual level, so as to produce Manchurian Candidate-like assassins for example. The CIA also likely sponsored the mass dissemination of LSD as part of MK-ULTRA. According to Peter Levenda, in his trilogy Sinister Forces: A Grimoire of American Political Witchcraft, William Mellon Hitchcock (scion of the billionaire Mellon family), who was associated with CIA front organizations Castle Bank and Trust and Resorts International, as well as being Timothy Leary’s landlord for his “psychedelic manor house” at Millbrook in upstate New York, paid a chemist by the name of Nicholas Sand to produce millions of doses of LSD. If this turns out to be true, then it was clearly their intent to drench the unsuspecting American populace with swimming-pools full of acid, in what might have been the largest mass paradigm-shifting action in human history.
Nor did the CIA only expose their victims and enemies—among whom we must include the American people—to the psychedelic drugs they had discovered and/or developed; they were also using them on themselves. The idea that the CIA wanted to employ psychedelics to “confuse and terrify” people is true as far as it goes, but they also apparently hoped that these substances could help their own agents gain magic powers: telepathy, remote viewing, etc. And they were also entirely willing to confuse and delight people if that would serve their ends. The hippy myth that the CIA were nothing but a bunch of uptight straight people who “couldn’t hold their acid” and saw it only as a crazy-making pill needs to be permanently debunked. The Bohemian/magician/secret agent is a well-known type; both the Elizbethan occultist John Dee (the original Agent 007) and the Satanist Aleister Crowley worked for British Intelligence. The ultimate goal of the powers-that-be in terms of psychedelic research, which has made a vigorous come-back in the academic world in recent years, may be to create a type of “spirituality” where even mystical experiences that are valid on a certain level will serve to establish their control. They want to own everything—even mysticism, even spiritual aspiration, even God. And the fact is, LSD did initiate a sort of “bardo” or revelatory decay of American society; all the latent tendencies, good and bad, the dominant belief-systems, conscious or otherwise, were called up in a very short time, laid out for all to see—and much of the social, cultural and spiritual potential of America and the Western World rapidly exhausted in the process. The family was largely destroyed (not by LSD alone of course); Christian morality was undermined, including the concept of human dignity; political responsibility was seriously eroded. And the social engineers simply sat back and took voluminous notes on the whole process. They noted the main trends, the major “cultural archetypes” operating in the “collective unconscious” of society, and devised various ways to appropriate, pervert, control and counterfeit every one of them. In so doing they initiated the world we live in today. The hippies naively equated social control with a simplistic authoritarian repression; they rarely awoke to the fact that real control is based on co-optation, on the covert implantation of engineered beliefs and attitudes in the mass mind. The powers that be do not want heroes who courageously oppose them and die as martyrs; they would much rather find, or create, dupes who will obey their every command in the firm belief that they are following their own desires, their own creative expressions and “spiritual” intuitions, all in perfect freedom.
And the New Age movement might well have been an even more of a mass social engineering job than the hippy counter-culture—though it would be wrong to claim that either movement was simply created by the social engineers out of the whole cloth, since both of them embraced elements of a true creative populism, as well as drawing upon the innate spiritual aspirations of the human race. In his last book, Manifesto for the Noösphere: The Next Stage in the Evolution of Human Consciousness, José Arguëlles drew upon the theories of one Oliver L. Reiser (1885-1974) as laid out in Reiser’s Cosmic Humanism (1966). Reiser was a scientist who developed an early version of superstring theory, was praised by Albert Einstein, and proposed the actual creation of Teilhard de Chardin’s “noösphere” by technological means, as well as a project for human eugenics through manipulating the radiation of the ionosphere; he apparently believed that mass radiation poisoning, such as was experienced at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, might ultimately have a eugenic effect upon the human race. According to researcher Drew Hemple,
Reiser’s book Cosmic Humanism was held in the highest esteem by a think tank called the Institute for Integrative Education. This think tank was set up by Forest Products magnate Julius Stulman and its office was then located at the UN Plaza. Its board of directors included the family that directed the nondualist Theosophist [Theosophical?] Society [which branch we are not told] and it also included scientists from Harvard and Yale. The goal of this Institute, as spelled out in their flagship academic journal Main Currents in Modern Thought (1940-1975) was to review all prominent academic journals and integrate all knowledge to the goals of nondualist theosophy. With this in mind the journal had a very advanced interest in eastern philosophy, paranormal research, eugenics, higher dimensional physics and social engineering.
Apparently the term “nondualism” as used by Hemple does not refer to the Hindu Advaita Vedanta, but rather to the agenda of creating a One World society by technological means. Hemple also claims, without supporting evidence, that José Arguëlles, who passed away in 2011, had CIA connections.
One more item should be mentioned: that according to the Arguëlles mythology, Harmonic Convergence was merely a preparatory event for the real paradigm shift that was to take place on December 21, 2012, which (according to some calculations, not all) was the day the Mayan calendar ended—a highly publicized event, with a relatively negligible effect, that came to be called The Mayan Apocalypse. It only remains to be pointed out that Harmonic Convergence and the Mayan Apocalypse represent one more case of the theft and bastardization of Native American religion by white people—not in naïve and misinformed appreciation like the hippies did it, but apparently for much more cynical purposes. The real Mayan Apocalypse took place in Guatemala in 1981-1983 when the Guatemalan army massacred the Quiché Maya. They destroyed 626 villages. Over 200,000 people were killed or disappeared, 1.5 million were displaced by the violence, and more than 150,000 were driven to seek refuge in Mexico. Were these tragedies remembered and mourned on December 21, 2012? If they were, I never heard of it.
So what was the ultimate effect of the various world peace prayer days that began in the 1980’s, of Harmonic Convergence, of the International Day of Peace, of the Mayan Apocalypse? Is it possible that all this effort on the part of many thousands of people had no real effect whatsoever—except to divert their attention away from true analysis and labor and into barren magical thinking? Perhaps something of value was accomplished, who knows? Nonetheless these events were deeply infected by, if not actually based upon, two fundamental errors.
The first error was the New Age doctrine that “consciousness creates material reality”—a notion derived in part from the fact that all creative human constructions, such as a building or an organization, begin as conceptions before they become established as facts. What is routinely forgotten in this way of thinking is that buildings do not build themselves, nor do organizations organize themselves. The initial creative conception must come into a fruitful relationship with the capital, the labor, the materials, and the pre-existing circumstances that allow for the organization to be developed or the building to be built. The belief that the subjective pole—consciousness—has precedence and authority over the objective pole—material conditions—is the essence of magical thinking, just as the belief that material conditions strictly determine consciousness is the principle of the worst, most hopeless and most fatalistic forms of materialism. Traditional metaphysics, on the other hand, makes it clear that God is the First Cause of both consciousness and conditions, which together constitute the creative polarity by which He manifests the universe. In the words of the Qur’an, I will show them My signs on the horizons and in their own souls until they are satisfied that this is the Truth. Is it not enough for you, that I am Witness over all things? (Q. 41:53).
The second error—or heresy, or blasphemy—is to put a human collective in the place of God, as if the pooling of the consciousness, the attention, the psychic energy of millions of human beings could somehow add up to the Power of God. This is not only impious, but frankly absurd. Those who rely in their prayer upon the notion that millions of others are praying at the same moment are not relying exclusively upon God—and a prayer that does not rely exclusively upon God is no prayer at all. This goes double, of course, for prayer that is offered by those millions to a heterogeneous assortment of entities, “angels”, spirit-guides and incompatible conceptions of the Divinity that, on certain levels at least, actually contradict each other. Each individual one of these faces of God may or may not be spiritually lawful and efficacious for the ones devoted to it: God is vast, His Mercy inexhaustible. But to worship them all at the same time can only produce a spiritual cacophony that might in some cases actually amount to a demonic invocation. Furthermore, no human collective—even if it follows a single unified revelation—can totally submit to God; only the individual can do that. This is the reason why all world-changing revelations given by God have come only through individuals, and why no spiritual community, no matter how faithful, ever became a saint. If God, within the context of a particular religion, allows or commands the community to pray as a community, this is only to support each individual within that community in his or her individual submission to Him; to the degree that this principle is lost sight of, the religious community in question—the sangha, the ummah, the mystical body—becomes not a real community of the faithful but an idol that destroys true faith at the root. If many individuals appeal to God, each in his or her own divine intimacy and solitude, great and miraculous things can happen—if God wills. Your brother’s faith in God can support and strengthen your own faith, but your faith in him—if it has begun to replace your faith in God—is worse than useless. As for your shaykh, your guru, your staretz, faith in him is equivalent to faith in God to the degree that he is annihilated in God. But as soon as your attachment to him as something other than God begins to veil the Divine Light, most likely because (consciously or otherwise) he is subtly provoking that attachment—or as soon as your attachment to the feeling of community support and validation begins to replace your reliance on God as your only Sustainer—then that spiritual leader and that religious community will be very fortunate if the worst thing that happens to them is….nothing at all.
As of this writing, the New Age as an influential popular movement is on the wane in North America. At the same time, as we have already seen in the case of Barbara Marx Hubbard, some of the dominant teachers of the movement have been inducted into the world of the ruling elites and their globalist think-tanks, if they didn’t actually arrive from that direction in the first place; this was in many ways the logical ultimate destination for the “New Age yuppie”. Given that one of the major doctrines of the New Age is “create your own reality”, those New Age practitioners who were able to “manifest their dreams” in the economic sphere had their belief in New Age principles triumphantly validated, while many of those (clearly the greater number) who failed in their economic hopes ultimately concluded that the teachings of the New Age were all impractical fantasy, and either returned to their Judeo-Christian roots (Jeff Daley, one of the directors of Global Family, later became a born-again Christian) or ended up seriously disillusioned with religion of any kind.
Judging from my own experience, it would appear that the True Believer sometimes has to take a tour of duty as the Paranoid Conspiracy Theorist before he can moderate and balance out the effects of his earlier limitless idealism. When and if such balance is finally achieved, worldly idealism (insha’Allah) becomes faith in God, and bitter cynicism, sobriety and detachment from the world.
In 2004 Jenny and I moved from California to Lexington, Kentucky, where the nearest Nimatullahi khaniqas were in Chicago and Washington D.C. Then, in 2008, Dr. Nurbakhsh passed away. A few years later a Muslim friend of mine in New York suggested that I investigate one of the Sufi silsilahs (lineages) that sprang from the great Sufi saint of Algeria, Shaykh Ahmed al-‘Alawi, who had initiated Frithjof Schuon. In 2010 I followed his lead and became an initiate of that order, which has only a handful of members in the United States. At last I felt I was connected with a Sufi order that had no “problems” with traditional Islam, though the order was certainly not immune to the prejudice against Sufism that many Muslims feel in our time, under the influence of the Wahhabi/Salafis. And since the order was based in North Africa, it perfectly matched the North African Sufis I had dreamt of when I was six years old, as well as manifesting the baraka (transmitted grace) and esoteric guidance that characterize the true tasawwuf. Furthermore, though any Sufi group may be forced to make certain alliances of a political nature for self-preservation in times of war or social chaos, my present order appears to be entirely without political identification, and consequently free to concentrate upon God and the inner life. I consider this to be the ideal; nothing but a weakening and distortion of the spiritual essence of tasawwuf can result from any sort of collective commitment of Sufism to a worldly social agenda.
Nonetheless, when the entire Muslim ummah faces a threat, it has not been the usual practice of the Sufis to claim “conscientious objector” status due to their spiritual preoccupation. Perhaps the greatest example of a Sufi sacred activist was Emir ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Djezairi (1808-1883), the illustrious Algerian freedom fighter against the French colonial invasion, who has been described as “a saint among princes and a prince among saints.” He was known for his impeccable honor and chivalry in battle, his good treatment of prisoners of war—following the example and command of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him—and his graciousness and resignation to God’s will in defeat. Though imprisoned for time, he was later honored by the French government with Grand Cross of the Légion d’honneur (this was in the days when the people of France could still recognize the virtue of chevalerie), as well as decorations from Greece, Turkey and the Vatican. After his military career he retired to Damascus to compose his commentaries on the writings of, Ibn al-‘Arabi, the Shakyh al-Akbar (greatest Sufi shaykh); while residing in that city he opened the gates of his private compound to Christians fleeing massacre during a rebellion of the Druzes, then stood side-by-side with his retainers, ready to defend his Christian guests with force of arms.
Nonetheless, until the year 2013, I remained entirely outside the world of activism, sacred or otherwise. I quickly saw how almost every major political effort in today’s world, whether for peace or social justice or environmental protection, had been largely co-opted by the powers that be. With lightning speed I discerned—accurately or otherwise—the essential contradictions in all the social movements I surveyed, ran them ahead in my mind’s eye to their ultimate conclusions, and found them barren. The only kind of choice I saw in any sort of idealistic worldly effort was that between Gog or Magog, so I was content to sit things out till I found myself in an entirely different world, one where earthly hopes and agendas have no meaning.
Then—unexpectedly, providentially—an opportunity presented itself for me to participate in the most complete form of Sacred Activism I had yet encountered. In 2013 my publisher James Wetmore, for whom I had done some editing in the past, showed me a proposal from one Dr. John Andrew Morrow for a book entitled The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, asking me what I thought of it. I took one look at that proposal and told Mr. Wetmore to jump on it quick, that Dr. Morrow’s book was the most crucially relevant document to today’s world that I could possibly imagine. When first I talked by phone with Dr. Morrow—a Native American from Quebec whose Muslim name is Imam Ilyas ‘Abd al-‘Alim Islam—I said: “Our press doesn’t have a large marketing budget for your book—but I think we can make a movement out of it.” The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, for which I was one of the editors and to which contributed a foreword, was published in October of 2013. Between that time and now, Dr. Morrow’s book has indeed become the basis of an international peace movement in the United States, Europe and the Muslim world. My connection with this movement has in no way been dictated by my Sufi order, nor am I at all inclined to preach it to them; I am acting strictly as an individual. Yet insofar as the Sufis practice the most radical form of submission to God imaginable—submission to the point of self-annihilation—then, if involvement with this movement is indeed God’s will for me, it must be considered as one of the fruits of Sufism in my life. One indication of this is that during my work with the Covenants I wrote and published a book on Sufism entitled Day and Night on the Sufi Path (Angelico/Sophia Perennis, 2015).
The covenants or treaties of the Prophet with various Christian communities of his time, which Dr. Morrow rediscovered in obscure monasteries, collections and books long out of print, sometimes newly translating them into English and providing powerful arguments for their validity, uniformly state that Muslims are not to attack peaceful Christian communities, rob them, stop churches from being repaired, tear down churches to build mosques, prevent their Christian wives from going to church and taking spiritual direction from Christian priests and elders, etc. On the contrary, the Prophet commands Muslims to actively aid and defend these communities “until the coming of the Hour”, the end of the world. When Emir ‘Abd al-Qadir defended the Christians of Damascus from massacre at the hands of the Druzes, he was following the Prophet’s Covenants to the letter. In response to Dr. Morrow’s resurrection of these documents I conceived of an initiative—the Covenants Initiative—which invites Muslims to subscribe to the theory that the Covenants of the Prophet are legally binding upon them today. The heart of the Covenants Initiative is the following Declaration:
We the undersigned hold ourselves bound by the spirit and the letter of the covenants of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) with the Christians of the world, in the understanding that these covenants, if accepted as genuine, have the force of law in the shari‘ah today and that nothing in the shari‘ah, as traditionally and correctly interpreted, has ever contradicted them. As fellow victims of the terror and godlessness, the spirit of militant secularism and false religiosity now abroad in the world, we understand your suffering as Christians through our suffering as Muslims, and gain greater insight into our own suffering through the contemplation of your suffering. May the Most Merciful of the Merciful regard the sufferings of the righteous and the innocent; may He strengthen us, in full submission to His will, to follow the spirit and the letter of the covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the world in all our dealings with them. In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds.
In The System of Antichrist (Sophia Perennis, 2001) I had called for a “united front ecumenism” of the world religions against three things: non-traditional religious fanaticism, false psychic religion, and militant secularism. I presented this form of interfaith action as the proper outer or exoteric expression of the Transcendent Unity of Religions, as opposed to “promiscuous Liberal ecumenism”, whose ultimate goal is the dissolution of all the faiths in some kind of One World Church. United front ecumenism exerts no pressure on the religions to syncretize their doctrines with a view toward worldly unification. Instead, it posits their transcendent unity by demonstrating how the forces of religious fanaticism, psychic pseudo-religion and militant secularism have declared war on all the world religions, thereby demonstrating that these religions represent a common threat in the eyes of those forces, and consequently that all the true religions must spring from a single Source. This is not to say that there can’t be a legitimate form of “esoteric ecumenism” (Schuon’s term) which discerns the metaphysical First Principles that all revealed religions and wisdom traditions hold in common, only that the necessary plurality of these revelations and traditions is itself one of those First Principles. I never believed that I would live to see anything resembling a true united front ecumenism, so I just described what I thought it would look like and left it at that. Then, twelve years later, the perfect incarnation of united front ecumenism, the Covenants Initiative, simply fell into my lap, and then went on to become an international movement. As the poet William Butler Yeats put it, “In dreams begin responsibilities.”
It is my belief that success of the Covenants Initiative—which, outside of the labor of the publisher, editors and printers, and various informal alliances we have made with journalists and other activists, is basically the work of two individuals—can only be explained by the fact that God willed it. It is a part of the virtue of faith to remain open to this possibility, while remembering that God’s will can be expressed in innumerable different ways in our lives, that no human being is exempt from that will, and consequently that to receive a command from Him is in no way a badge of status, spiritual or otherwise, but rather a serious duty that must not be ignored.
While true spiritually-based social action, even militant action, can certainly be carried on within a Christian framework, it will always be secondary to the interior life and the grace of the sacraments. After all, Jesus Christ (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Unlike Christ, however, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was sent not only as a mystical sage and a moral teacher, but also as a husband, a father, a business man, a diplomat, a judge, an administrator and a military leader. Consequently Sacred Activism within a Muslim context is less subject to internal contradictions than a hybrid spiritual/political theory like Liberation Theology is within a Christian context. On the other hand, the integration into the religion of Islam of the perennial human necessity for militant action becomes a great danger when the essential spirituality of the religion, including the “organized mysticism” of the Sufi orders, becomes weakened. The vast damage done by an “Islamicist” militancy when it cuts itself loose from the “just war” doctrine and rules of warfare to be found in the traditional shari’ah—not the latter-day perversion of the shari’ah promulgated by the Wahhabi/Salafis—should be obvious to all. The continuing evidence of support for certain Islamicist elements by the United States and other outside powers must also be taken into consideration, in light of which it should be painfully clear that it is next to impossible for Islam to wage any kind of just war against western neo-colonialism when terrorist armies, fighting in the name of Islam, are willing to accept funds and arms from the west. By the same token, the “turn the other cheek” doctrine of Christianity, which represents the height of spiritual heroism when the faith is strong, is in danger of becoming a culpable form of cowardice in the face of political, moral and spiritual evil when the faith loses force. It’s as if Christianity, in its decadence, is vulnerable to infection by the Dark Feminine principle—something that is certainly visible, for example, in the Catholic pedophilia scandal—whereas when Islam degenerates it tends to manifest the Dark Masculine principle in the form of terroristic brutality. And just as Christianity continues to abandon its virility in the face of internal decay, militant secularism and the Islamicist threat—though we must remember here that more Muslims than Christians have died at the hands of terrorist groups such as the so-called Islamic State—so the compromised manhood of Islam, which has also been weakened by both external attack and internal decay, becomes even more vicious and perverted under the influence of Christian weakness and apostasy—a weakness that tempts militant Islam, or rather something that is no longer true Islam as soon as it succumbs to this temptation, to every kind of excess. Thus effeteness and barbarism create each other. Regarding the passivity of degenerate Christianity, it should be remembered at this point that, according to traditional Catholic moral theology, to become “an occasion of sin” for other people is sinful in itself. Seeing that cowards are a standing temptation to bullies, this means that anyone who will not defend him- or herself from invasion or unjust oppression bears part of the guilt of the oppressor—not to mention the fact those who won’t defend themselves will certainly not be willing or able to defend anybody else. Likewise no Muslim should ever forget the following two hadith of the Prophet:
Someone who unjustly kills a dhimmi (member of an accepted religious minority within Islam, including Christians and Jews) cannot get a whiff of Heaven. (Sahih Bukhari, Jizya, 5)
Whoever oppresses a dhimmi or loads a work that is over his strength or takes something away from him by force, I am his foe on the Day of Judgment. (Abu Dawud, Kharaj, 31-33)
The Covenants of the Prophet, which have left a clear historical and textual trail that traces back to their original composition by the Prophet himself, are precisely in line with hadith like this. As soon as Dr. Morrow began to make these documents known to the Muslim world— which had begun to forget their existence, or at least their continuing significance—Muslims from all walks of life, including many prominent scholars, began to join our movement and make it their own. Less than a year after the publication of The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, Dr. Morrow was denouncing ISIS before the House of Lords in London. And, from one point of view at least, our movement (or at least the first cycle of it) culminated in 2016 in the Marrakesh Declaration, issued by the leaders of many Muslim nations after a convention in Marrakesh, Morocco, which renewed the traditional protections granted to non-Muslim religious minorities within Muslim nations, based on the Prophet’s Constitution of Medina. We were told by officials of the Islamic Society of North America that our work with the Covenants Initiative was one of the inspirations for that Declaration.
Sacred Activism is one of the many ways God’s Will can manifest in the lives of those who love Him. It is certainly not necessary to the spiritual life, consequently there is no way I can “recommend” it. If it is part of God’s Will for you, then He will eventually present you with it. If not, then you should not have to live in the shadow of it—though it would still probably be a good idea if you could get some notion of what it entails, since a time may come when militant action under God’s guidance will become a spiritual if not a physical necessity for more people than today. The main thing to remember, in my opinion, is that the spiritual life requires two things if we want to live out the fullness of it: a connection to one of the Divine revelations or wisdom-traditions, and a degree of insight into God’s specific Will for you, along with a total willingness to obey that Will as it unfolds. This second requirement is what the Hindus call swadharma, one’s individual spiritual destiny: “Better to perform your own duty, however poorly,” they say, “than the duty of someone else, no matter how well.” This history is not to be taken as a model for other people’s movements and projects, only as a picture of what God can do when we human beings realize that we can do nothing without Him. As the Noble Qur’an informs us, Every day doth some new work employ Him [Q.55:29].