Levitas and Gravitas, Fairies and Mystics: A Response to Christiana N. Peterson

David Russell Mosley

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Eastertide
7 April 2016
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Last week, Image Journal, posted to their blog an essay by Christiana N. Peterson. In the essay, Peterson talks about her daughter’s longing for fairies and its relation to the mystics longing for God. I posted the article to my personal Facebook page saying, “There is more that could be said, but this is a good beginning.” Today, I would like to say a little more.

Some of my friends responded to the article noting that the depiction of mystics was rather sanitized and romanticized. This is true. Peterson writes:

The mystics’ words make me think of wings again, of living in the trees of Middle Earth with the elves. Why, I wonder, would reading the mystics feel like reading Tolkien or searching for fairies in the dying light of summer?
I so want to encounter God in the way of the mystics. I want to know God is with me, right now in the moment, in tangible, visible ways. So I pour over their words and spiritual practices, wishing to have visions but knowing that God often comes to us in more mundane ways.

For Peterson, reading the mystics is like reading Tolkien, but I’m not sure if it’s like reading Tolkien in the right way. For Peterson, the connection is between the deeper realities glimpsed by the mystic and a land populated with things like elves, dwarves, and dragons. Yet when I read the mystics, I feel less like I’m reading Tolkien, in that sense anyway, and more like I’m reading Ezekiel or Dante or Tolkien in a very different sense. Let me explain.

The mystics, who really can’t be categorized together like this, are often giving us insight to one of two things if not both. Often they are giving us translated visions of the deeper reality, of the angels, thrones, and powers, the logoi that stand behind and uphold, through God, the things we experience everyday. Or else they give us an insight into ourselves. Peterson mentions Theresa’s interior castles, but it is precisely that these are castles that exist within us. I think of Augustine’s Confessions where he turns from searching for God in creation to searching for God within himself and as he plumbs the depths of his soul is raised to higher heights. Or again, I think of Dante who takes us through Hell (our own sinfulness), purges us in Purgatory, and gives us that first glimpse of the Beatific Vision and the ecstatic understanding that will be given to us on how God could be so joined to man in the person of Jesus Christ, by extension (or better participation) in us. Or again, I think of Denys and how the Celestial Hierarchy stands behind, upholds, and gives reality to the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy.

For me this reminds me of Tolkien not because of Middle-earth, per se, but what Middle-earth represents, namely the reality of Faërie. Tolkien writes in On Fairy-stories, “It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of words, and the wonder of things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.”⁠1 I’ve written before about this, and other, quotations from Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories, but I want to draw attention to this line again because of the examples Tolkien uses. It is perhaps not inappropriate to see in bread and wine the Eucharist. Here, in a way, we get at the heart of the mystics. For many mystics things we see in everyday life, or fantastical combinations of them (e.g., the griffon), stand for deeper, spiritual realities. They images that serve as symbols of a deeper reality. In the Eucharist (and other sacraments) it is not just pictures but physical objects themselves that serve as real symbols of deeper realities.

What is more, however, is that for Tolkien, Faërie itself is the Perilous Realm. A land in which, should we venture, we will not come out unchanged (as Aragorn says to Boromir before they enter Lothlorien). If, as a friend has suggested, Peterson’s view of mystics is sanitized, so too is her picture of Faërie. The angels, it would seem, are terrifying to behold, if we take seriously their injunctions to “Be not afraid” when they appear to mortals. Lewis uses this to an interesting effect in his Perelandra when the two guiding intelligences of the planets Mars and Venus ask Ransom, the human protagonist of the Cosmic Trilogy, to tell them which will form will be most suitable for introducing themselves to the King and Queen of Venus. Ransom is terrified as they appear to him in forms whose depictions are lifted almost word for word out of Scripture (notably Ezekiel).

Now, like Peterson, I will be raising my children to look for fairies, though perhaps not in broken potsherds, but in large mounds. I hope that this investment in their imagination will do for them what it did for me, open up the possibility that there are things we cannot see or cannot comprehend and categorize. That along with angels and the logoi (insofar as those two are separable) there may be lesser beings both like and unlike us who belong to this world in a way even we do not, and that we might be able to catch a glimpse of them if we correct our vision (which often takes holiness). Yet I hope my children will also learn to seek these things in the right spirit, the spirit that says these things are not safe, they are not tame, to borrow language from Lewis, but that at least some of them are good.

So, I agree with Peterson, there is a connection fairies, or better Faërie, and Mystics. But this connection has to have the right tenor, the right level of both levitas and gravitas. We can at once find both joy and terror in the presence of God, so to in the Perilous Realm, and we need both in order to see them more clearly. A joyless God is not a God worth our worship and yet neither is one who does not inspire us to say, “Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips.” What we do not need are safe fairies, nor a safe God. Safe reality is not worth our existence. We need stories and a reality that rightly reflect the deeper truths. Consider again the Eucharist. Here is the source, in so many ways, of all our joy. We are united to Christ as we eat his flesh and drink his blood. Yet consider precisely what we are doing, we are eating flesh and blood. We are re-visiting not only the night on which Jesus was betrayed, but his crucifixion, his body torn, his blood poured out. The source of all our joy is a moment of horrific torture unto death. This is something the mystics most certainly understood as their visions make clear (I think of St. Perpetua and her dream about the ladder covered in nails and spikes with a dragon at its base. Yet once she reaches the top, there is joy and peace). It is both levitas and gravitas, life and death, joy and danger, that unites our search for fairies and our search for God and the deeper truths of reality.

Sincerely,
David

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1 J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘Tree and Leaf,’ in The Tolkien Reader (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Company, 1966), 78.

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Seeing Through a Glass Darkly: Christianity, Visions, and Mysticism

David Russell Mosley

Ordinary Time
4 September 2015
The Edge of Elfland
Hudson, New Hampshire

Dear Friends and Family,

Sometimes I see visions. I’ve written to you about them before, but I find myself returning to the visionary and mystical aspects of Christianity again and again. Now, I want to be clear, I make no claims to have prophetic visions or to be a prophet. My visions are likely only meant for me. I seriously worry sometimes about whether or not they should be shared. Those visionaries who have come before me were often reluctant to share their experiences. I worry I’m too ready. So, today, I will not be sharing a vision with you, but rather the nature of my visions and about mysticism in general.

A passage I often turn to is 1 Corinthians 13.12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” My visions, when they come, especially of late, have had something of this passage in them. What I mean is this, while I may often dream in technicolor my visions are cast in shadows. I see outlines, recognise shapes, but have not recently been given specifics. In truth, I wonder if this doesn’t come down to my sinfulness, especially when you compare my visions to others.

To give you an example, I want to look at the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas. I am taking for granted that this story is relatively true account of the thoughts, actions, and visions of St Perpetua. This is the story of two women, Perpetua and Felicitas (and a few men), who are condemned to death for being Christians circa AD 203. During her time in prison before her execution, Perpetua has several dreams or visions––there is likely a difference between dreams and visions, but my theology of mysticism is not so finely worked out as of yet. I want to share one of those dreams with you:

Then my brother said to me, ‘My dear sister, you are already in a position of great dignity, and are such that you may ask for a vision, and that it may be made known to you whether this is to result in a passion or an escape.’ And I, who knew that I was privileged to converse with the Lord, whose kindnesses I had found to be so great, boldly promised him, and said, ‘Tomorrow I will tell you.’ And I asked, and this was what was shown me. I saw a golden ladder of marvellous height, reaching up even to heaven, and very narrow, so that persons could only ascend it one by one; and on the sides of the ladder was fixed every kind of iron weapon. There were there swords, lances, hooks, daggers; so that if any one went up carelessly, or not looking upwards, he would be torn to pieces and his flesh would cleave to the iron weapons. And under the ladder itself was crouching a dragon of wonderful size, who lay in wait for those who ascended, and frightened them from the ascent. And Saturus went up first, who had subsequently delivered himself up freely on our account, not having been present at the time that we were taken prisoners. And he attained the top of the ladder, and turned towards me, and said to me, ‘Perpetua, I am waiting for you; but be careful that the dragon do not bite you.’ And I said, ‘In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, he shall not hurt me.’ And from under the ladder itself, as if in fear of me, he slowly lifted up his head; and as I trod upon the first step, I trod upon his head. And I went up, and I saw an immense extent of garden, and in the midst of the garden a white-haired man sitting in the dress of a shepherd, of a large stature, milking sheep; and standing around were many thousand white-robed ones. And he raised his head, and looked upon me, and said to me, ‘You are welcome, daughter.’ And he called me, and from the cheese as he was milking he gave me as it were a little cake, and I received it with folded hands; and I ate it, and all who stood around said Amen. And at the sound of their voices I was awakened, still tasting a sweetness which I cannot describe. And I immediately related this to my brother, and we understood that it was to be a passion, and we ceased henceforth to have any hope in this world (1.3).

I will not, for now, attempt to provide some possible interpretations and understandings of Perpetua’s vision. One key thing I want to point out is that Perpetua seems to have seen in color, for the ladder was golden (admittedly, it’s not impossible for her to have been able to assess that without the aid of color). More importantly, however, is the vividness. Now it’s true that even those who have visions when they go to record them or report them to others are already involved in the act of interpretation. For instance, have you ever told someone about a dream and filled in gaps or misunderstandings you had whilst dreaming but understand better now awake? Be that as it may, Perpetua’s vision is full of sensory indicators, color, taste, smell, all are there. How unlike my own visions of late. But even her visions are clouded until she understands them, they are clouded in allegory, just as mine are clouded in mist (not that I’m making a direct comparison to myself and this third century martyr of the faith).

I suppose my point, if I have one today, is this: Christianity is a mystical religion. We are the descendants of Joseph, Daniel, Ezekiel, John, and Paul. Dreamers all of them, or visionaries, who saw things beyond the land of shadows in which we live and into heaven. What is more, we are the descendants of Jacob and Moses, of the apostles, of the shepherds, of Mary Magdalen, of Reuben who were all given glimpses of the depths of reality even in this shadowland. Why does it feel like we’ve lost this? I know many traditions still exist which believe these things possible. But why does it feel like we have no expectations of this kind of thing? Maybe we’ve let New Age Spiritualism take mysticism away from us. Maybe we’ve forgotten that the true mystics are those who are servants of the Triune God, those who cling to Jesus Christ. If we have, it’s time to remember. It’s time to take back mysticism.

Remember Peter’s sermon and his quotation from Joel, this is our religion:

“‘”And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”‘” (Acts 2.17-21).

Sincerely,
David