Agape and the Cloth of Gold
The dialogues I’m gradually adding to this website keep circling back to the intensification of experience. There are things anyone can do the allow that to happen, but sometimes, if we’re lucky, it floods over us and we don’t have to do anything. In fact, there is nothing we can do. It’s involuntary, and it lasts awhile and then gradually fades. But we never quite forget it either, and it remains a reminder of how life can be experienced without our fingers crossed. I was reading Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of W. H. Auden the other day and ran across such a wonder moment that Auden experienced in 1933 and remembered and wrote about some thirty years later. Carpenter writes: “He had never been happier. It was perhaps this, together with the fact that he was in love, that led him to experience a quite novel sensation one June evening.”
One fine summer night in June 1933 1 was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man. We liked each other well enough but we v,./ere certainly not intimate friends, nor had any one of us a sexual interest in another. Incidentally, we had not drunk any alcohol. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly — because, thanks to the power, I was doing it — what it means to love one’s neighbour as oneself. I was also certain, though the conversation continued to be perfectly ordinary, that my three colleagues were having the same experience. (In the case of one of them, I was later able to confirm this.) My personal feelings towards them were unchanged — they were still colleagues, not intimate friends — but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and I rejoiced in it.
I recalled with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but the immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as I was possessed by this spirit, it would be literally impossible for me deliberately to injure another human being. I also knew that the power would, of course, be withdrawn sooner or later and that, when it did, my greeds and self-regard would return. The experience lasted at its full intensity for about two hours when we said good-night to each other and went to bed. When I awoke the next morning, it was still present, though weaker, and it did not vanish completely for two days or so. The memory of the experience has not prevented me from making use of others, grossly and often, but it has made it much more difficult for me to deceive myself about what I am up to when I do.
Here’s another wonder moment from Sidney Field’s Krishnamurti The Reluctant Messiah. An American teenager in the 1920s, Sidney met the spiritual leader, then in his twenties, through his family, and was invited to attend a camp gathering at Ommen in the Netherlands and a pre-camp gathering at Castle Eerde. Sidney’s moment took place there one morning during a talk by Krishnamurti.
At some point during the talk, something extraordinary happened to me. For no apparent reason I experienced a sudden outburst of intense joy in the region of the heart. I went on and on in increasingly strong rhythmic waves until I thought I would have to open my mouth and shout for joy. I was reminded of Irving Pichel’s laughter in Lazarus Laughed—only this was the real thing, uninvited unsought, possessing my entire being. It was an experience that practically lifted me out of my body, something I had never felt before or thought I could ever feel.
After the talk most of the guests took advantage of the sun-drenched morning and went out into the woods for short walk before lunch. I stayed by myself, hoping preserve the fragrance of that indescribable moment as long as possible. Alone and undisturbed under the leafy shade to a tall elm, I felt the joyous force quieting down to the rhythm of my breathing, bringing with it a sense of great peace and up-welling love. As the days passed, it receded into the background. I looked forward to my forthcoming walk with Krishnaji in the hope that he might be able to ignite again the inner spark that had given me such a great high a few days before. I longed to be swept up again in tha joyous flame that had made the world appear purified and innocent, as if it had just come into being that morning.
After the meeting in Eerde, Sidney visited Paris, London, New York and Chicago and then took a train home o Hollywood. Here he recounts his second wonder moment:
Paris, London, New York, Chicago—they were exciting and fun for a young man embarking upon life, but hardly the appropriate ground upon which to cultivate that rare spiritual flower I had found at Eerde, which now seemed a faraway dream. I boarded the Sunset Limited in Chicago on my way back to Hollywood, depressed and discouraged, wondering whether I would ever again touch that deep and purifying force.
One day I was standing against the side railing in the open section of the observation car, traveling fast through the New Mexico desert. I was not thinking about anything in particular, just taking in the vast monotony of the desert scene, hot and dusty, when a giant sunflower growing beside the railroad tracks, a few inches from destruction, brushed rapidly past my face, incredibly close, its golden face momentarily shutting out the world. Like a coiled spring, the great Joy, self-exiled these past few weeks, leaped out of me, as if to greet the daring flower beside the railroad tracks—a joyous sunburst to the glorious sunflower!
The train sped on as I watched the magnificent bloom slowly fade and disappear in the distance. Outwardly nothing had changed. The same dull, fat people still sat in the observation car, watching the same hot, dusty desert. Yet, miraculously, everything had changed for me. The heightened awareness revealed a desert that was a marvel of beauty. The people around me, fat and ugly, had somehow acquired a quality I had not been aware of before, something, perhaps, deep down in them, that touched the life of the lovely flower they hadn’t even noticed. Truly, it was a startling, marvelous experience, once more totally unexpected. I wondered how long it would last, but I promised myself not to worry about that now.