What led up to that decision?
I came here, to Charbonnières, from Chartres, where I spent the night between Good Friday and Easter Eve in a solitary vigil in a crypt under the huge cathedral. During the history of that remarkable church a sort of religious fever broke out in the 1140s and people of all classes began to pull and drag heavy wagons and carts to the cathedral. It was the well known “cult of carts”. Princes and peasants alike put themselves into the harness of beasts and dragged in silence, heavy loads of building materials and food stuff to Chartres from all over France and the Continent. The motivation to do all this must have been religious conviction, of course, but some may have joined because it was religiously à la mode.
If we follow the lead and do just as the others do, it so easily will become a pretence, I believe. After more than twenty years of experience as a farmer (by choice) and of simple living (by compulsion), I can hardly believe
that any serious decision “to live simply” will last for long or work out positively if it is not part and parcel of an inner context.
- But, looking over the inward connections and patterns of a lifetime, who took the initiatives?
- Who opened me up for the true listening? And how to map such a vast field?
- And how to prune the most interesting question in the world: “Who am 1?”
This was in fact an early question of mine, partly perhaps because l may have had identification difficulties. I was brought up under the ownership of my mother, a dancer of a most domineering temperament. It must have been, I presume, rather rough sailing now and then. In order to survive that mental “pas de deux” and its exercise of “the five positions” one probably had to pretend a good deal. Therefore, also: “What is Truth?”
Uneven in school, to put it nicely, I became one of these abashed and confused adolescents, mainly interested in painting and the writing of verses. As far as I can remember, I was constantly followed by a certain dim idea, which, I guess, has hunted many a young fellow. A good picture or a poem could, I was sure, become a sort of landing-net capable of catching that hidden real Reality which, as I saw it, must exist behind the screen of the “Normal” reality. Then, seen in that relation, I could find out what life was all about. Thus: “What is Reality?”
Eivor, my wife, and I came to know one another already in our early teens. We married in 1939 and the war came and separated us. After the war our life together came out in a completely changed pattern. For me personally two different trends led to a new view of life. One, short and unexpected, can be exemplified by a book of Fritz Künkel, the psychologist, which gave me a hard, sudden punch. Another, a longer and more gentle process, led slowly from deep admiration of the classical Chinese brush paintings in Indian ink and of the Tan lyrics, via Rabindranath Tagore, to Sri Ramakrishna, who I thought was another Indian poet, when I first picked him out. A religious Reality of a sort had thus slowly begun to dawn and in 1945, in his “Perennial
Philosophy”, Aldous Huxley said gravely to me that amazing: “Tat twam asi!—That art thou!”
My life in the world of the Perennial Philosophy was very captivating, too beautiful, indeed. But, nevertheless, now I had turned a corner. Rather soon, however, I discovered how lofty it was. Bookish all over. It was impossible to remain “religious” all by yourself and by that I meant to keep going on the top of an emotion. I had a very scornful and preconceived attitude toward the Christian churches, so primitive and narrow-minded compared with Eastern wisdom. A year or two earlier, however, someone near to me had told me about his own odd life. In England, during the bygone Edwardian days before the first World War, he met some Quakers. They had, he told me, a new kind of religion, clean and based on Truth only. Nothing of the usual paraphernalia of the churches, the blood and the lot. No: come just as you are! And what he had told me then, came into my mind now, and I looked for the address in the telephone book and wrote a question to the tiny little Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends in Sweden. The year was 1946 and they consisted then of about 70-80 members.
I remember still very distinctly the precise moment when for the first time I stood outside the closed door of the meeting for worship. It was in a dark and Sunday-empty corridor of an old folk-high school in the city of Stockholm. Purposely I was a little late in order not to meet anyone. When I had the cold handle in my hand it went through my mind so astonishingly clearly: “Beware! If you press that handle down now, your life will change completely!” It did. Mainly because a young American Friend ran out on the street after me, when I tried to escape after the meeting.
Within a short period of time we, Eivor and I, became members and deeply involved in the life of that small group. In fact, anybody was needed. And nearly anybody was also welcome. That was, I guess, part of the dilemma of the group: “Who are we to judge anybody?” Another was this: “Who are we to order anybody?” It was up to you yourself whether to go to Meeting or not, to pay any money or not, to study anything or not. I was profoundly impressed by the respect shown to everybody’s integrity and peculiarity, but I, the unaware, living in post-religious Sweden, was also soon bewildered by this limitless tolerance.
Peter, the fisherman, wrote the advice: “…be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you….” (1 Peter 3:15). That faithful advice was not applicable here, it seemed. What hope? We were more inclined to let common sense shape our faith. Speaking of Peter and his Christianity, I remember very well the deep embarrassment and near-shock an aged English Friend brought about when in a meeting for worship he knelt down. He was, I am positive the London YM representative to our YM 1947, when in a small private meeting he knelt down, put his clasped hands in my lap and said something to Jesus. I think the present Swedish Friends, including myself of course, found it very alarming behaviour, to say the least. Jesus, treated in that way, was no acceptable figure at all. We had, as I see it now, turned the boundary-breaking visions of Fox inside out. Our spiritual situation was limitless, yes, like a wide and empty airfield, ready for take-off, but what to do with this silent freedom?
Two years later, in a manner which was really somnambulistic, I quit the job I had had for 15 years, without knowing what to do next. I had been doing animating pictures for education. Perhaps I was, being a Friend and a pacifist, somewhat annoyed that in the coming autumn we were to start the making of a film for army tactics instruction. But the main impetus to leave, by far, was a dim, in fact a most dim and unidentified feeling, growing more and more awkward, that we had to do something before “religion” had run out of us completely. When “it had no root it withered away” (Matt. 13:6). This time it was no hunt for emotions. I was out for that hope Peter is writing about, that kernel, that innermost motive and mainspring. But, of course, I didn’t express it in these terms because I didn’t know what it was all about. I was chanting the usual mass of general bad social conscience and general undefined kindness, all wrapped in the smoky incense of lukewarm pantheism and half cooked do-good-ism. I had a feeling of creeping failure and lurking defeat.
I can’t remember how we came across the idea of retreat, but Eivor and I did not know more about it than a sentence or two in an encyclopedia: you make a military retreat in order not to be defeated; you may go to a Jesuit retreat to have religious experiences. – “Let us start a retreat-place!” “What we desperately need is factual religious experiences! No more intellectual discussions, pretending to know what religion is!” — “How much money do we have now?” — “Not more than 25 pounds if we make use of all our resources!”
The same autumn, being at a Swedish folk-high school to learn about fruit growing—an impulse we got, having met a Quaker couple in Beccles, England—I was, to our absolute surprise suddenly invited by the London YM to go to the World Pacifist Meeting in India, all cost paid. It was naturally a terrible waste of money. The meeting was far above my head and my presence must have been of microscopic profit for the gathering, if any at all. To me personally it was an experience with great impact. I learned a lot about Gandhian nonviolence, but also how superficial my conception was concerning Eastern religions. Eating outdoors at the campus of Santiniketan, I was once approached by one of these unbelievable, skinny, scurvy and fly- covered Indian street dogs wagging his tail for food. The look I got from the sad eyes became in that moment a concentration of all the Indian misery and sufferings I had seen and it made me quite unintentionally whisper to the eyes: “Hi, Jesus!” To me it was an unforgettable eye-catch. During the long aea voyages out and home again an old English Quaker couple told me about their Christian experiences: the spirit of persistance in seeking, knocking and asking and of a simple dialogue with the Inward Friend. My exuberant jangle of “tat twam asi” became more and more an empty desert fit for the “I AM” – experience (Exodus 3:14) of total presence. But it took another ten years before I understood what it all was about.
Back in Sweden, where Eivor’s continuous work had made the whole trip possible, we were now more convinced than ever before that we should make a retreat-place – even if we hardly know anything about retreats. But did we for that matter know much more about farming? After really great difficulties we managed to borrow money enough to buy and start a small farm north of Stockholm; Svartbacken. It was A.D. 1950.