Mysticism or Mental Illness? Jones Very's Story
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September 5, 2010
Mysticism or Mental Illness?
The Jones Very Story
Light a candle
FROM THE BIBLE
Arcana Coelestia (Potts) n. 4413
4413. That the light of heaven has within it intelligence and wisdom, and that it is the intelligence of truth and the wisdom of good from the Lord that appear as light before the eyes of the angels, it has been given me to know by a living experience. I was taken up into a light that sparkled like the light radiating from diamonds; and while I was kept in it, I seemed to myself to be withdrawn from bodily ideas and to be brought into spiritual ideas, thus into those things which belong to the intelligence of truth and of good. The ideas of thought which originated from the light of the world then appeared to be remote from me, and as it were not belonging to me, although they were present obscurely; and by this it was given me to know that insofar as anyone comes into the light of heaven, so far he comes into intelligence. It is for this reason that the more intelligent the angels are, the greater and the brighter is the light in which they are.
September in Harvard Square has a magical feel to it. For the years I studied at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, I loved walking to the Square, and over to Harvard Yard. The streets were teeming with new students and returning students, who were filled with excitement and fear about a new term.
I didn’t know then about a September in Cambridge some 150 years earlier: 1838. A young tutor of Greek at Harvard was having an experience of spiritual emergence.
Thursday, Sept. 13th:
Jones Very felt not a feeling of my own but a sensible will that was not my own, a will to do good. There was “a consciousness which seemed to say —‘That which creates you creates also that which you see or him to whom you speak.’
Very felt an identification with Christ.
The next day, on Friday morning, Very felt inspired to cry out to his students: Flee to the mountains, for the end of all things is at hand. Then he stopped by the debating club at the Divinity School to explain that they were merely doing their own wills, but he was longer acting through his human self. The Holy Spirit now spoke through him, and he was passing along the “eternal truth.” One of his students wrote that evening in his diary that Very seemed like George Fox.
On Saturday: Jones Very’s younger brother Washington, a freshman at Harvard, was asked to escort him home to Salem. Very wanted to go through Concord and speak with Waldo Emerson, but was persuaded to send Emerson a letter instead.
On Sunday, back in Salem, Very visited various local ministers to baptize them for “The coming of Christ.” The local Baptist minister threw him out of his home. Rev. Charles Wentwort Upham took the opportunity to remind Very that his hero Ralph Waldo Emerson was nothing but an Atheist, and warned Very that he was headed to the insane asylum.
Very then attempted to baptize his own Unitarian minister, the Reverend John Brazer of the North Church. Brazer demanded to know what miracles accompanied his revelation. Very responded, This revelation would not have miracles. The minister then suggested that his parishioner was having hallucinations.
He then went to the home of his friend Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. He placed his hand on her head, saying I come to baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire. I am the Second Coming. This day is this fulfilled. She doubted his sanity.
Gittleman points out that Very’s actions were a profound embarrassment to the local Unitarian society, and to the Transcendentalists. His mother defended him as being extremely spiritual; in fact his fervor brought her from her atheism to a strong belief.
However, on Monday, Very was taken against his will to McLean Insane Asylum. He was only kept there for a month, until the doctor released him; not finding any way that McLean could be of help to this man who was healthy, not depressed, not violent, and had a constructive attitude of wishing to return to the community.
Very had made one change during his hospitalization: He gave up any attempt to convince others of his beliefs. He himself, however, continued with complete confidence in them.
[Note: McLean Hospital in Belmont MA has since treated Robert Lowell (1917-1977), Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), and Anne Sexton (1928-1974).]
When he returned home, his pastor, The Reverend John Brazer, paid him a visit and again asked for a miracle; or for an acknowledgement of insanity. He urged Very to discontinue his association with Emerson.
Then Very visited Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and apologized for having been so intoxicated with the Holy Spirit. When Very told her about the visit from his pastor, Elizabeth was angry: A miracle, indeed. She did, however, encourage him to take his medication.
Very spent some time with Emerson. Emerson was supportive of Very’s writing, and especially of the poetry he had started to create. Emerson did not seem particularly concerned about the issue of sanity, but he did find Very a rather trying house guest. His relationship with Very became rather strained when Emerson worked to publish some of Very’s work: they did not agree on whether the Holy Spirit should be edited.
By 1840, Very was withdrawing from an active life. He lived a fairly reclusive life. He was licensed to preach, and did do some preaching, as well as genealogical research.
Was Very insane? Was he a great mystic?
Here, we enter a realm in which many opinions abound! Here are a few for your consideration:
Bronson Alcott: Is he insane? If so, there yet linger glimpses of wisdom in his memory. He is insane with God …Living, not thinking, he regards as the worship meet for the soul. This is mysticism in its highest form. [ P. 278]
Amos Bronson Alcott (1799-1888)
Alcott was a transcendentalist philosopher and author as well as an educational and social reformer. He was the father of author Louisa May Alcott.
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody:
... I have feared insanity before. — I thought (at the time) that the visit to Groton showed it. — These impulses from above I think are never sound minded — the insanity of Quakers — (which is very frequent under my observation) always grows out of it —or rather begins in it.
Gittleman: He was insane
Wilson Van Dusen: My guess is that Swedenborg systematically explored the same worlds that psychotic patients find themselves thrust into, and these worlds are heaven and hell, the worlds beyond this one, inside this one.
William James noted the similarity between the mystic and the schizophrenic experience as far back as 1902. He distinguished between two kinds of mysticism: a higher and a lower. The former included the classic mystical experiences, while the latter James identified with insanity, which he termed a ‘diabolical mysticism.’
What would I do as a social worker, if some family member pushed a Jones Very to come see me because they thought he was insane? Or what if, as I’m getting ready for church some Sunday morning, a Jones Very showed up at my door to baptize me in the Holy Spirit?
I would probably welcome the baptism, and see Very as a mystic, whose spiritual journey followed the general path of Swedenborg’s regeneration. In September of 1838, he seemed to have a genuine encounter of “oneness” or “union” with the Divine, which left him uncertain how to function in the world. I might point out to him that mystics have often not adapted well to the earthly world, and tend to make people uncomfortable.
I think he came to the same conclusions, as he withdrew from active involvement in the world after 1840.
Emerson and other Transcendentalists often compared Very to Swedenborg. I think it was a realistic comparison. Swedenborg seemed to have had a longer period of preparation for his spiritual awakening [see the Dream journal], seemed to have integrated it better, and carefully hid his identity from the world for quite a while. I think that Jones Very was quite vulnerable in his experience of spiritual emergence, and was shut out by ministers, Harvard officials, and Transcendentalists who were embarrassed by him.
What do you think?
During the period after his awakening, he wrote some of his most profound poetry. The following poem is one he wrote right after his awakening:
The New Birth
a new life;--thoughts move not as they did
With slow uncertain steps across my mind,
In thronging haste fast pressing on they bid
The portals open to the viewless wind
That comes not save when in the dust is laid
The crown of pride that gilds each mortal brow,
And from before man's vision melting fade
The heavens and earth;--their walls are falling now.--
Fast crowding on, each thought asks utterance strong;
Storm-lifted waves swift rushing to the shore,
On from the sea they send their shouts along,
Back through the cave-worn rocks their thunders roar;
And I a child of God by Christ made free
Start from death's slumbers to Eternity.
These two poems convinced Emerson of his talent, and he put them in his published collection of Very’s work.
I looked to find a man who walked with God,
Like the translated patriarch of old;--
Though gladdened millions on His footstool trod,
Yet none with him did such sweet converse hold;
I heard the wind in low complaint go by
That none his melodies like him could hear;
Day unto day spoke wisdom from on high,
Yet none like David turned a willing ear;
God walked alone unhonored through the earth;
For Him no heart-built temple open stood,
The soul forgetful of her nobler birth
Had hewn him lofty shrines of stone and wood,
And left unfinished and in ruins still
The only temple he delights to fill.
CLOSING SONGWork, for the Night is Coming
Extinguish your candle.
Close the Bible
Go forth, praising God with prayers, poems, music, and/or songs.
LEARN MORE ABOUT POETS WITH SWEDENBORGIAN CONNECTIONS
Gittleman, Edwin. Jones Very: The Effective Years: 1833-1840. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967