A Wrong Turn

Lost Christianity: A Journey of Rediscovery By Jacob Needleman. Tarcher/Penguin. 228 pp. $15.95

I had thought I would only reread the opening section of this book—Three Christians—because I love the portrait the author draws there of three unusual Christians and their transformative practices, but as I finished that section I continued and reread the whole book. I was still in that mood of disgust with religious dogma that the novels of Marilyn Robinson had inspired, wanted to get back to a Christianity that seemed more sane.

Jacob Needleman is a follower of Gurdjieff who was also a professor and a student of world religions; he seemed, as a scholar, reluctant to reveal his Gurdjieff association, and that’s understandable, because many people—Christians in particular—would find it suspect. But when he finally gave up the scholarly pose and wrote personally and from the heart, in What is God?, he wrote his best and most valuable book. Lost Christianity—and various other early works—seems on the way to writing that book.

I am always nourished by the portraits of the three Christians. One was a Russian Orthodox bishop named Anthony Bloom, a deeply serious man who struck Needleman as being unlike any other Christian he had ever met. He was impatient with questions about theory and dogma, but had various intriguing ideas about the practice of Christianity. He exhibited to Needleman “a quality of openness that one might wish to describe as ‘surrender,’” and the things he said about religious practice, just the quotations that I underlined, are intriguing:

“We have to get rid of emotions . . . in order to reach . . . feeling. . . . In the state of prayer one is vulnerable. . . .This is the whole aim of asceticism: to become open.”

Needleman notes that our beliefs may not have much effect on our actions (Marilynnne Robinson’s characters need to hear that). “Somehow, the intellectual grasping of a great idea is accompanied by the conviction, a sort of unconscious vow, that I will live according to this idea.” But the truth of the matter is that “I may think great and true thoughts, I may have absolute integrity in my intellect, and yet at the same time I may not be able to live my life according to what I know to be true or right.”

So what brings about a change? Needleman asks Bloom about the spiritual exercises of the early church fathers.

“You have been to our service,” Bloom says. “If you stand in the service with your hands down to the side, with your head slightly down—not too much—your weight evenly balanced . . . if one does this, one begins to see changes, certain muscles relax, others become firm—not tense. All this comes from the religious impulse. . . .”

He paused, and then said (the italics are Needleman’s), “The exercises you ask about originated in this way, from the Fathers observing what happened to them when they were in a state of prayer.”

So the state of prayer for them was more a physical act than a mental one. The physical discipline accomplishes what thinking cannot.

The second of the three Christians is much different, a Catholic missionary named Father Vincent whom Needleman happened to meet—they were suite mates—when he was giving lectures at a Catholic university (he doesn’t specify which one). Father Vincent smokes cigarettes and drinks beer, fairly copiously it seems. He isn’t fundamentally polite, ignores his new suite mate when Needleman arrives because he’s so absorbed in a football game. He’s paunchy and rough around the edges, shares with Bloom a certain indifference to the company of other people (if that’s an aspect of spiritual advancement, I’m not interested).

Needleman finds the man more irritating than anything else, but he’s also fascinated, especially by a certain physical presence and grace. One night after Needleman had spent the day lecturing and meeting with folks, he came back to find Father Vincent once again boozing it up and smoking, watching the tube, but asks if he wants to play some gin rummy. The man abandons what he’s been doing, though he was watching a fine movie, “Paths of Glory,” comes over and is immediately ready for the game, and though—as Needleman finds out later—it has been years since Father Vincent played, he cleans up on him. He has a concentration and intuition that are more important than his lack of skills.

The men play until 3:30, but Needleman jerks awake at 6:00 and discovers that his suite mates are already up, that they are in fact officiating at in a small chapel nearby. Father Vincent is “clean shaven and remarkably fresh,” and Needleman says something fascinating about this vision of him.

“He is adjusting some things on the altar. I have never seen—and yet I have seen—quite the attitude as there was in him, in his face and posture. It is the attitude of someone who has done the same thing thousands of times, every day of his life. There is clearly something remote and mechanical about his movements. Yet it is all animated by something else as well. I know what it is! He is like a woman moving around her kitchen! She has done it thousands of times, she knows exactly what is next, and her body manifests it through a sort of overeconomy; too little is put into the movements. Yet she is also strangely serious, and though both she and the husband who comes home to her knows his work is ‘more important,’ they both sense that her work exists at a deeper level than his.”

When Needleman finally has a serious conversation with the man, he turns out to be much more interesting than all the boozing and football watching would suggest. “Christian?” he says as he brings up his work in Africa. “I’m not a Christian! There are no Christians!”

He too is obviously a person whose physical life is more important than his mental life, though he didn’t learn through spiritual exercises. At one point he had helped an African medical team with a sudden epidemic, risking his life along with other men to get people onto boats and down a swollen river. He seems to have been awake for 48 hours straight.

“Toward the end of the second night, there was a moment just before dawn when the river was quiet and the people were all quiet. Suddenly, everything in myself became still, including my body, which had been in agony from stress and exhaustion. I felt the presence of God. The smells of the jungle and the river, the night sounds, the sensation of heat in the air—everything seemed part of the Oneness of God. Everything was motionless in eternity. All the things I had been afraid of—the sickness, the danger of drowning, of falling; all my personal revulsions and resentments—and there were plenty of them—everything appeared before me also as a part of God. I felt an overwhelming gratitude toward God that he had given me this work to do. I prayed in a way that I had never before prayed; I knew it was the Son praying to the Father through myself.”

Father Vincent has much more to say; the experiences he then describes—of gradually losing his personal identity—are fascinating and sound quite authentic. Needleman feels they can be best understood in light of the musings of his third Christian, Father Sylvan, whom Needleman met only briefly but who left behind notes from an extensive journal.

I found the Father Sylvan passages the least interesting, just because they weren’t told in stories. He seems in a way the deepest of the three men, but also the least comprehensible. I heard somewhere—I can’t remember where—that Father Sylvan is an invention, that this is actually a portrait of Needleman’s teacher in the Gurdjieff tradition, Lord Pendleton, but if that’s true, it’s a brilliant invention, because the writing in that journal sounds nothing like Needleman. It’s a different kind of mind altogether.

The book winds down after those first hundred pages. Needleman goes off to find people in the contemporary world who are engaged in these same traditions, and finds a number, including the founder of the Centering Prayer movement, Father Thomas Keating. But what strikes me again and again, even in the writings of Father Sylvan, is the way Christians seem almost afraid of these body-based spiritual exercises, even though they were practiced by the church fathers. The central notion of the book is that the Christian church took a disastrous turn when it became influenced by the Platonists in the early centuries, that the Eastern Orthodox church, which went in a different direction, is more authentic and helpful. But I kept thinking, as I read page after page about cautious Christians who contemplated a basic exercise like sitting still and in silence, Just do it! It shows its value in the doing. They’re so worried about finding justification in scripture that they’re ready to throw the baby out with the bath. Some do just that.

In the Eastern religions there’s no dogma in the way. We jump in and do the practice. Through that we discover everything.