There’s a scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that I imagine most Swedenborgians can relate to. It’s where Lucy is trying to convince her siblings that she really did visit Narnia, and they respond with various degrees of derision and condescending disbelief. And of course they go into the wardrobe to try it out, and of course it’s just a wardrobe.
Of course this describes a universal human experience, and especially one believers in any religion go through when they try to express what they’ve seen and felt and known to be true. But I do think Swedenborgians in particular – members of a group smaller than 100,000 worldwide, less than .002% of the world’s population – experience this acutely. We’ve seen something in the Writings of Swedenborg, we’ve felt it, we know it’s true – but as far as almost everyone else is concerned (if they even know of his existence), Swedenborg was misguided at best, and Satanic or insane at worst.
What does that have to do with how Helen Keller (or I) would help the world? I recently read Helen Keller’s book How I Would Help the World (featured this month at the Patheos Book Club). The book itself consists of an introductory bio of Helen Keller, with particular focus on her relationship with Swedenborg’s Writings; an Appendix comparing Keller’s theology to passages from Swedenborg’s Writings; and in between, the main text, Keller’s essay, “How I Would Help the World,” originally published as an introduction to Swedenborg’s True Christian Religion. And that essay, I think, expresses something like that feeling of Lucy’s: a pressing desire to share a world that few seem to believe exists.
What Keller would do to help the world would be to share the Writings of Swedenborg. In her essay, she provides an excellent, brief overview of the essentials of New Church theology – that God is one, Divine Human; that He is the union of Divine Love and Divine Wisdom, resulting in Divine Use; and that all love, wisdom, and use with people are from Him. She also stresses the vital point that these teachings are all drawn from the Bible. But the thing that struck me the most was that passion and hope behind it: that people would be able to see the beautiful things in those books themselves that Keller saw.
A couple of excerpts (with my emphasis added):
The atmosphere Swedenborg creates absorbs me completely. His slightest phrase is significant to me. There is an exquisitely quietening and soothing power in the thoughts of Swedenborg for people of my temperament. I wish I might be able to radiate the spiritual illumination that came to me when I read with my own fingers Heaven and Hell. (381/689 in the Kindle version; sorry, I’m not sure about physical page numbers)
Were I but capable of interpreting to others one-half of the stimulating thoughts and noble sentiments that are buried in Swedenborg’s writings, I should help them more than I am ever likely to in any other way. It would be such a joy to me if I might be the instrument of bringing Swedenborg to a world that is spiritually deaf and blind. (398/689)
No matter how well she could summarize the doctrines, as Keller saw it, there was no substitute for the joy and the light that came from reading the Writings themselves. Keller expresses a burning desire to share even half of that with the world. I think most Swedenborgians can relate. We know there are treasures in these books, because we’ve experienced them; but it’s hard to communicate that to someone else. We’re Lucy trying to convince our skeptical siblings that there really is a world inside the wardrobe.
The problem is, when we show them the books, when we press the books on our friends, for them it often turns out to be just a wardrobe. The responses I’ve gotten range from, “There were some interesting ideas in there,” to, “I really didn’t get it,” to, “Yeah, most of that makes sense” – but without the passion I’d expect if someone really got it. And there are plenty of other responses that people don’t usually tell me directly: Swedenborg was insane, Swedenborg was deceived by Satan. But it’s rare that someone says, “Yes! Exactly! I see!”
Those moments do happen, and it’s one of the most thrilling things to talk to someone who does see it, who gets it. It’s exciting to read an essay like “How I Would Change the World” because Keller is a kindred spirit – she understands!
It’s clear that Keller herself understands that not everyone who picks up a book of Swedenborg will see what she does in it. But I like the way she puts it:
If people would only begin to read Swedenborg’s books with at first a little patience, they would soon be reading them for pure joy. (381/689)
And again a little later:
“The conclusion forces itself upon the mind of one who patiently reads his works through, that Swedenborg described a world which was as distinctly objective to him as the world we live in is to us.” (398/689)
The emphasis on patience is key. I think some people read the Writings until they get to a confusing part, which they get stuck on, and or just give up on, putting the book down in confusion or boredom. The advice to them: keep reading. It’s amazing how often the exact questions you ask will be addressed just pages later. If you’re in a boring part, keep going – maybe there’s something on the next page that will grab you.
I guess it’s clear that I’m feeling pretty Lucy-ish even writing this blog post. It’s hard not to be when I know that I’ve seen what I’ve seen and felt what I’ve felt, and know that there’s an incredible well of truth there that the world has barely tapped into. That desire to show people that, to get them to see what I’ve seen, is why I’m a minister.
The thing is, though – I’ve also been on the other side. I’ve been Lucy’s skeptical siblings – and I know that being on that side’s not easy either. When friends of mine tell me about 9-11 truth, for example, they very clearly see something, and they’re incredibly frustrated that the rest of the world (including me) can’t see what to them is as plain as day. And yet, I still don’t see it, and I can’t pretend I do – and they don’t want me to pretend I do anyway. I can look into it to some extent, but as much as I do I know it will never be enough – there will always be more evidence to digest, more studies to read. We have to make priorities about what we spend our time on, and I’ve decided, for right or wrong, that I’m satisfied enough with the official explanation for 9-11 that I’m not going to spend a whole lot more time looking into it. I acknowledge that I could be wrong. I’ll still listen when my friends present evidence, and maybe I’ll be convinced at some point in the future. But I’ve decided that my time would be better spent on other things than on digging deeper into the research. It’s as simple as that – and yet, I completely understand their frustration.
But when it comes to the Writings, I’m Lucy. I know what I’ve seen, I know it was real – and those few others who do end up seeing it as well make the effort to share these things completely worthwhile, as frustrating as it is sometimes.
All of this brings me a question for you, readers: when have you found yourself in Lucy’s situation? When have you found yourself in the situation of Lucy’s siblings? And (most interestingly to me) what do you do in those situations to try to interact with the person who sees something you don’t, or who doesn’t see something you do?