Apr
09

Many Things Absolutely Baffling: Anne Evans’s Journey with Theosophy

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This is the last in a series of four blog posts about Anne Evans’ journey with theosophy. All quotes are from an article written by Anne Evans in 1909*, which came to light after the publication of my book on Anne Evans.

Learning more about Theosophy
In following Anne Evans’ long journey to becoming a member of the Theosophical Society in America, I ended the last blog with her decision to become better informed about this organization she found herself defending against numerous critics. She started by borrowing issues of the Theosophical Quarterly and discussing the contents with her growing circle of theosophical friends. Here she “had an amusingly lively time” for she seized on the strong points to present to critics and the weak ones “to discomfit my friends.” On a serious level, she was weighing all she was reading in forming her own independent judgment.

At Theosophical meetings “the grace to keep quiet.”
I also frequented the theosophical meetings, where I had the grace to keep quiet.” She was obviously deeply moved by the experience. “The membership was small, but the evenings were very beautiful, very simple, marked by a spirit of restraint and tolerance; the devotional atmosphere distinctly to be felt.” Only once before had she experienced this same atmosphere and it couldn’t have been in a more different setting, “one that had every outer aid to heighten and abet it; a great cathedral, a concourse of devout peasant worshippers and the wonderful voices of the Greek Catholic priests.”

Plunging into Waters Too Deep for Me
In the actual subject matter of Theosophical beliefs, Anne Evans found much that she found familiar and acceptable, but “also many things absolutely baffling in their newness and incomprehensibility.” These were expressions and similes and symbols which she would have said were nonsense – except for her respect for those to whom they were so meaningful. The other alternative was to try to understand, to confess “that I had met something beyond my mental depth, something my mental smattering did not permit me to grasp…It was alluring and I splashed and plunged in waters too deep for me, occasionally bringing up a pebble or a pearl, but chiefly discovering new depths, new mysteries.”

Seal of the Theosophical Society

Seal of the Theosophical Society: http://www.theosophical.org/the-society/the-seal-and-motto

Exactly What do Theosophists Believe?
She arrived at a point where she was “practically a convert” to the overall philosophy of the organization. and anxious to learn more about what exactly Theosophists believed. Of course their tenets included the universal brotherhood of man, but so, she wrote, did socialism, communism, most churches, the constitution of the United States and the French Revolution. So that was not grounds enough for embracing Theosophy. Tolerance for all religions, and an emphasis on constant widening of one’s knowledge, were worthy principles but weren’t “All scholarly, cultured and social people more or less enlisted under such a banner?

Because of the intricate and sometimes dogmatic language in which theosophical tenets were worded by its founder, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, it was another long interval before Anne Evans came to the full understanding that “theosophical doctrines were held tentatively, subject always to proof or to refutation, subject to immediate revision should anything present itself more unifying, more perfectly explanatory of life.

Something of Value in Spiritualism? Really?
All that remained now of all of Anne Evans’ difficulties with Theosophy was Madame Blavatsky’s conviction that, in spite of many examples of deceit and chicanery, something genuinely valuable and unique about the human psyche was revealed in the practices of spiritualism. So Anne, in spite of her long-standing prejudices, began to investigate biographies of saints and mystics, and found herself especially moved by the lives of Joan of Arc and St. Francis of Assisi. “Paracelsus, Swedenborg and William Blake helped build an evidential mass of some bulk, to which the bits of other-worldliness which I was learning to trace in poets, painters and musicians, added weight.” To this body of personal research, she added the contemporary “logical and painstaking investigations” of psychologist William James, Sir Oliver Lodge and Myers. “When at length I turned back to those once mistrusted theosophical records, their facts were too easily grouped and classified to provoke challenge.”

Why, in the End, Did I Join?
While all of this long journey of discussion, research and reflection had brought Anne Evans to “the full acceptance of a great philosophy, a profound religious concept,” it was the publication of a book attacking Theosophy in a way she felt was “so manifestly unfair, so unscrupulous in its use of flippant humor” that finally caused her to join the “maligned body.” For, she decided, “if one believed in a cause open to such attacks, one should be in a position to defend the faith from within the ranks.

More information about the Theosophical movement in America is contained in Chapter 17 (Anne Evans and the Theosophical Movement) of my biography of Anne Evans.

Three other articles written by Anne Evans surfaced at the same time as the one about why she joined the Theosophical Society. The subjects are: John Wesley and the Methodists (the faith that was so vital to Anne’s parents), George Fox, and The Snake Dance (Hopi). Unless some topic more immediate comes up, the next three blogs will deal with these lively articles.

*The article referred to is Why I Joined the Theosophical Society, in the Theosophical Quarterly, January 1909, Vol. 6, No. 3, pp. 220-224.

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