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Pilgrims of the Absolute

by Brother Roger, C.R.1

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A Pilgrim of the Absolute is someone who is making straight for God, whether he knows it or not. He is someone who is looking for love, freedom, fearlessness, certainty, joy and gladness and expects to find them all - somewhere.

It is possible for a Christian still to be a Pilgrim of the Absolute; in fact that is all we Christians are. Ours is certainly the God of joy and gladness. That is what the priest and server said to each other at the foot of the altar at Mass.

I will go unto the altar of God

even unto the God of my joy and gladness.

And God has told us how to be joyful and glad - just like him. He gave us the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor in spirit and so on. "Blessed" means to be happy, fortunate, enjoying extreme felicity. Plato said, "If to beauty is added temperance, blessed art thou." But our Lord's recipe for happiness was longer and more complete and quite uncompromising.

To one young man our Lord said, putting his teaching to the proof, "If you want to be perfect (i.e. happy, blessed like me) go now and sell all your property, and give the money away to the poor."

What a way to be happy!

When you are poor there is so much to do without. What dreary conversations - always merciful, always gentle, always pure! In the first years Christians did believe that this was the way to be happy, and they tested their prophets and teachers along those lines; for in those days, if you were a Christian

you believed that salvation was the only thing that mattered. You believed

you had been baptised. All the old horrors of sin and heathenism had been washed away. You believed that in a very short time, perhaps only a matter of weeks or days, you were going to welcome the returning Lord and see him with the eyes of your flesh. No one could think of sinning in such a short time of waiting.

But the years went by, and Christ did not come, and the people began to slip back into their old ways. The tension relaxed, and sin, instead of being exceptional, became normal and Christians wondered if God would believe in the sincerity of a repentance after baptism. Still wanting to be Pilgrims of the Absolute but sure they were not as they ought to be.

Then the great Christian teacher, Clement of Alexandria taught that one could make sacrifices for sin - new sacrifices not the old liturgical ones of beasts and garlands and wine poured out but new ones that would for certain enable us to see the Lord when he came and be welcomed by him.

There were six of these new sacrifices:

Any or all of these would make one a Pilgrim of the Absolute.

Clement of Alexandria was teaching the way of spotlessness, of newness. It would not be the worst of us who would hurry to sacrifice; it would be the holiest. It always is. It was Jesus Christ, who by his very nature could not be separated from God, who experienced with such tragic intensity the difference between things as they are and things as they ought to be, between the painful reality and the glorious ideal of truly natural man - man as he was made to be - the replica of God.

It was he who uttered the sincerest and simplest cry of desolation that was ever heard: Why hast thou forsaken me?

This is holy desolation, holy despair, which explodes and blows to smithereens all our false humility. We may either hurry to sacrifice, or say -

But holy desolation - the hurrying to sacrifice - allows us to breathe the air of the transcendent, the Absolute, the air that God breathes.

I am going to quote an extract from an almost unknown French novel, describing an utterly desolate woman. Her children had died of want. Her husband had been killed. She had been left with nothing, and she wandered from church to church, and to her graves, never begging, but taking quite simply what was offered to her.

Silent as space, she seemed when she did speak to have come back to earth from some blessed land in some unknown universe. It was her voice that made one feel this. Age had made it grave without destroying the gentleness of it, and what she said made it even more likely. "Everything that happens is adorable," she used to say, and with the look of a creature weighed down with the weight of grace, who knows no other way of explaining what is happening in her heart and mind, and she would have said the same of a plague that was wiping out the world, or at the moment when she herself was to be thrown to the lions. A priest, who happened to be a good one, seeing her crying in church, said "Poor woman, you must be very unhappy". To which she replied, "I am perfectly happy. You do not go to heaven tomorrow or the day after or in ten years' time, but you go today of you are poor and crucified.

Then there is the strange case - in reverse - of Jean Genet, the playwright and poet, whose play "Les Negres" is on in London now,3 Born in Paris, illegitimate and abandoned, brought up by foster parents in the country. Stole at the age of ten, and sent to a remand home, for the next ten years in and out of gaol, or in the Foreign Legion. In prison he accepted the rigour of his life as a monk accepts his rule.

Jean Paul Sartre, who has written a book about him, calls him liar, thief, pervert, saint and martyr. He is blatantly frank about himself and denies nothing. He hates society and has set himself a resolute courtship of evil, in order that, so some believe, he may know it from within.

He wants to be an outcast, and hates the people who try to reform him. It is perfectly clear that he is deadly serious, and repudiates the idea that there is anything of the saint about him. "Absolute moral perfection," he says, "means that I would have to betray my friend to the police."

He lives nowadays in hotels in Greece and Italy - the best ones (his only luxury) - because in their privacy seclusion is easier. He no longer lives in France, because the climate hurts his rheumatism - a legacy of the gaols, and besides, fame hurts his self-protective ego.

He lives austerely, not even owning a copy of his books, only the clothes he stands up in. He gives away much money, his few close friends are completely dominated by him. They say he is the most generous, honest and rigorous man they have ever met. Everyone finds him courteous, lucid, very direct in argument, often very funny, but aggressive if he suspects any insincerity.

He doesn't care how he dresses; he's a chain smoker; he looks like a peasant, not like a poet, with the face of a ferocious chimpanzee.

He really seems to be upset by the stage success of his plays, not because he is modest - the very opposite - a sort of inverted conceit and a desire to remain reviled. He usually tries to avoid seeing them. He says he is writing for the dead, whatever that may mean. In one play he says that the dead are those not engaged in the illusion of living.

To understand him, one has to go back to the queer poetic youth of the reformatories and prisons, who shoved morality through the looking glass. Everything he writes is sincere, even when he is trying to shock. Whatever the psychological causes may be, his pursuit of evil and degradation is the by-product of his hatred of society. "Society rejects degradation, so I will cherish it."

Clearly this ethic does not fit in with his sympathy and love for his fellows, especially for the outcast. Now that he is no longer of the underworld, as it were, he says that his criminal years were a deliberate self-imposed discipline, to complete the break with society, and to reach the solitude necessary to discover his true self.

What have we done to hide from people like this man, the reality of our faith, which we know could answer their longings? Genet's hatred of society seems so much like the hatred of the world we are urged to. In a queer perverted way he is an ascetic, he knows the necessity for solitude and stillness, and how cluttering possessions can be.

Perhaps he sees the Church as so many outsiders see it - shorn of much that is beautiful. The Church is no longer the opiate of the people, as the communists insist, since there is not even a narcotic kick left in it. It seems that we have nothing of the flavour and excitement of the first years, but everything watered down, until the wine of their spiritual intoxication of the first centuries has become the weak tea of our get-togethers, and what was once the living bread of the Spirit is now only the buns and cakes of our parish organisations. It may well look to outsiders as if we of the divided church spend all our energy on perpetuating our beloved divisions.

But when we know from our own experience that God is a person who cares for us, whose very being is love, which means "caring for", then we should be able to make other people believe it too - if they want to believe. If we could show by letting everything go, letting everything slip into the hands of God, we should lose nothing, but gain immeasurably.

St Francis let go, and so did many other holy walkers, and, according to Jack Kerouac, there are the Beats on the West Coast of the USA, who seem to be looking for something very like St Francis was looking for. And maybe it was people like these that Jesus spoke about when the disciples came to him and John said, "Master we saw a man driving out devils in your name, and as he was not one of us, we tried to stop him." Jesus said, "Do not stop him: no one who does a work of divine power in my name will be able in the same breath to speak evil of me. For he who is not against us is on our side."

The Beats seem to look for God for the kick of it. St Francis looked for God because he thought God wanted him.

In The Dharma bums Jack Kerouac describes his hero fire-watching on a mountain, absolutely alone for months on end, and spends his time practising Zen. Now the goal of Zen is enlightenment, or as the Beats (or Beatific Ones) would say, "getting with it" or "being hip".

But what is enlightenment?

As enlightenment lies beyond the intellect, which alone can define and describe, one cannot define enlightenment. It is that condition of consciousness wherein the pendulum of opposites has come to rest, where both sides of the coin are equally valued and immediately seen. Silence alone can describe it, the silence of the mystic, of the saint, of the artist in the presence of great beauty, of the lover and the poet, when the fetters of time and space for the moment have fallen away. It is the plane where the whole is seen as such and the parts in due proportion. It is not out of the body nor out of the world. On the contrary the world and all in it are seen and enjoyed more fully than before. At first it is reached in flashes that come and go, later it comes in profound meditation, or when the mind, by this device or that, is raised to its highest plane. Enlightenment is seeing into one's own nature, and that nature is not one's own. The vision might come quite suddenly, or slowly arise. It is in no way to be confused with a psychic trance, or the fantasy of the schizophrenic. Nor is it concerned with morality, or any man-made code. It is a foretaste of the Absolute Moment, of the cosmic consciousness, of the condition in which I and my Father are one.

Léon Bloy was a French writer who, because he believed absolutely in what God has revealed to us, and lived what he believed, found himself shunned and silenced by literary Paris. He lived a martyr to his faith until he died in 1916 at the age of 70. The strangest and most revealing episode in his life is his affair with the girl whom he called Veronica, but who was known to her cafe associates as The Leech. She was a dressmaker who supplemented her meagre earnings with prostitution as a sideline.

Léon Bloy was born on the 6th July, 1846 at Périgeaux. From his childhood he was in conflict with his environment, unruly, refusing to submit to a strict upbringing - torn between his father's avowed atheism and the mysticism of his mother. From an early age he had had the sense of an unusual destiny, and knew the pains of loneliness. He left school early, and refused to consider any career. He drew, painted, read books on history and religious subjects, went from one job to another, never staying long in any of them. After his conversion, in 1869, he was a soldier for a while, and then got a job as a clerk on the railways. He tried journalism, but most of his work was rejected, because he "could not write four words without endangering the equilibrium of the planet".

The element of mysticism was brought into his life by Anne-Marie Roulé, whom he later immortalised in the character of Véronique in "Le Desperere". She was a prostitute for whom he conceived a most violent passion, in which sensual attraction was coupled with a most noble love of the spirit. When he tried to turn their relationship into something wholly spiritual Veronica learned about God as quickly as her lover had done, and in mystic prayer she far outstripped him. But the flesh was too strong for them. Bloy could not resist her. Then he knew that if he were not going to marry her, he must give her up. He went away to a wise and holy monk who only told him what he already knew. He returned to Paris to break with Veronica, but when she heard she asked him once more to live in chastity with him, and she would help all she could.

The next morning she went to a barber who shaved off her hair, and paid her for it. With the money she went to the dentist and had all her teeth pulled out. And that was how Bloy found her in the evening. Needles to say, he loved her more than ever, but in a new way, and from then on they did live together as brother and sister, but not without a tremendous struggle on Bloy's part.

I had a letter from an undergraduate overseas at the beginning of the year - she was telling me about her love:

Bill is very conscious of his own sin, but he has a fantastic faith in other guys, and refuses to see them as sinners like himself. He wants the church, the actual place, the building, to be a place to be enthusiastic in, where you can play jazz, make love, do all the other beautiful things men can do. Last night, coming back from the bioscope all in the rain like, what the two of us wanted to do was go to church. We were with it, you see, and so was God. What Bill needs to find in our religion is the personal relationship side. He wants to be able to dig God and old Mrs Jones, and all the other bloody fools who go to church, but he won't let himself see this.

An artist called Harold Rubin held an exhibition in Johannesburg, and I was asked to open it. Among his drawings was one of Our Lord on the cross, naked and in great agony. The drawing was denounced by many people as blasphemous and obscene, and it was seized by the police. I was asked to open the exhibition, and a friend of mine, who is a bus conductor, came with me to see it, and later wrote to me about this drawing:

I realise now that until I saw that (picture) I had not real conception of what the prophets meant when they talked about "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief" who was "despised and rejected of men". It does not show you what you would have seen if you had been there, because that can hardly be guessed at, but it shows exactly what was happening there on Calvary.It doesn't show (as so many religious pictures do) a soppy-looking drip being despised and rejected, but it shows something despicable and rejectable, a tortured man who had been arrested, dragged to court in the middle of the night, and mauled around and spat on and flogged and crowned with thorns and then dragged out, nailed to a cross and left to hang there in the blazing sun with nothing to drink until he died. And Christians must genuflect because that despicable, unconvincing, repulsive spectacle is God himself. This is the kind of Saviour we represent."

It is not a mockery of Christ, but it shows the Christ who was mocked. And it is repulsive to all of us, because in it we can see, whether we like it or not, that if we had been there, we would probably have been among those who shouted "Crucify him". It shows the God who is known, not by his strength, but by his weakness, and religious people do not want a God who chooses to be known by his weakness, because they want a God who is strong and will fight for them, and sort out their problems, and then still be something they can get all gooey about. If a Christian is one who stands by God in his hour of grieving, then Rubin's drawing helps to give one an idea of the God Christians stand by. I wish it could be hung up in the Cathedral permanently for religious people to throw things at, just as they treated the person it represents 2000 years ago, and then in yet another way religion could show itself the enemy of Christ.

Isn't it ironic that our Lord should have been arrested and executed for giving offence to the sentiments of the religious people, and that now a picture of him should be confiscated for exactly the same reason, in a so-called "Christian" country.

I expect after hearing about all these people - Léon Bloy, Jack Kerouac, Jean Genet and the others, you will be thinking they are all a bit crazy - that something has happened to upset their mental balance, so I will give you the answer that Léon Bloy himself gave, when someone asked him, of these "pilgrims of the Absolute", "But what about his mental balance?"

>Balance? The devil take it! He has indeed taken it long ago! I am a Christian who accepts the full consequences of my Christianity. What happened at the Fall? The entire world, you understand, with everything in it, lost its balance. Why on earth should I be the one to keep mine? The world and mankind were balanced as long as they were held fast in the arms of the Absolute. What the average man means by balance is the most dangerous one-sidedness into which a man can fall... the renunciation of his heavenly birthright for the pottage of this sinful world.

We seem to have come a long way from the God of our joy and gladness, and from the Sermon an the Mount, where we began. But it is just here, when we think of the Sermon on the Mount, that we begin to wonder about our balance.

The Sermon on the Mount is so confusing.

In a novel by John Clellon Holmes, called "Go", one of the Beats, Stofsky, who goes around trying to help others when they are drunk, or stupid with drugs, dreams that he sees God in the form of an old man, in a dusty hall with faded Christmas decorations, and he is asking God what he can do for his friends.

- But what must I do, Sir? How shall I help them now? You see, I'm so confused and tired

- You must go back, and remember none of this. There's an end which you shall discover. It waits there for you. Without you it cannot happen, and it must.

- But what shall I do?

- Being saved is like being damned. You must go - go and love without the help of anything on earth

That is it.

St Augustine said, "Love God - and do what you like"

He tells all of us to go, and love without the help of anything on earth. And if we truly love him, we will do just that. And that is what Our Lord did in the Garden of Gesthemane, and on the cross.

God himself cried out, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

That is the absolute - love without anything else.

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Notes and references

1 Brother Roger was a member of the Community of the Resurrection, an Anglican religious order. He read a version of this paper at the first annual conference of the Anglican Students Federation of Southern Africa (ASF) held at Modderpoort in July 1960. He was asked to speak on "More Pilgrims of the Absolute" the following year, and so gave a different version. This is a combination of both. The 1961 version had the material on Léon Bloy, while the 1961 version had the material on Jean Genet and the Harold Rubin drawing. The original title was "The unrespectability of our religion".

2 Two of the sacrifices in the list were missing as a result of a printing error in the copy from which this was transcribed.

3 This was in 1961.

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Brother Roger

Brother Roger, of the Community of the Resurrection
Brother Roger Castle, CR (1895-1971), was partly of Jewish descent. His father was a timber merchant and shipbreaker, and married twice. His large family was educated by tutors and governesses, and so Roger never went to school. He had a deep and wide knowledge of European literature and art. He spoke French fluently and was able to correct an expert on the work of Jean Genet on the finer points of indecent French slang. He ran away from home during his teens, and sold lemonade on a Rhine steamer. He spent some time living with a Lutheran pastor in Halle, and later lived in Paris in a flat below the starving and unknown painter Modigliani. There he joined a music-hall act which toured England. He served in the artillery in World War I, and was awarded the Military Cross. After the war he became a teacher, and taught at Leominster Grammar School, and later at Victoria College, Jersey. He went to South Africa as a tutor, and encountered the Community of the Resurrection. He joined the novitiate, and the Community wanted him to become a priest, but he managed to convince them of his lay vocation. After profession he returned to Africa, and taught at St Peter's, Rosettenville and St Augustines, Penhalonga. He died on 4 June 1971.

More Pilgrims of the Absolute

Brother Roger sparked my interest in Beat Generation writings and tried to plant the seed of a Christian vision of a "rucksack revolution", mentioned by one of the characters in The Dharma bums:

Japhy leaping up: 'I've been reading Whitman, know what he says, Cheer up salves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that's the attitude for the bard, the Zen Lunacy bards or old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn't really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume. I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of 'em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures, that's what I like about you Goldbook and Smith, you two guys from the East coast which I thought was dead.'
South Africa in the early 1960s was perhaps too materialistic for such a vision, and though I myself found the idea appealing, I never did manage to go beyond holding it as a vague ideal. Occasionally I heard of or came across others who did. In the 1970s there were Jesus freaks like the Children of God who lived in communes they called colonies. In the 1990s there were the youth of the apocalypse inspired by Fr Seraphim Rose -- punx 2 monks, the children of the burning heart who produced a zine called Death to the world. Perhaps that would have gladdened Brother Roger's heart.

If you're interested in reading more, see my literary pilgrimage, though I doubt if one can be a purely literary pilgim of the absolute. See also my blog Khanya, which has several related articles.

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