A friend lent me this book (Wonders of Spiritual Unfoldment by John Butler) and after reading a few pages I thought it was going to be one of those books that becomes a lifelong friend - the kind you re-read every couple of years.
But I was mistaken.
Having returned the book to its owner, it was not two years, but only two months later that I was clicking "buy" on Amazon, haunted by many half-remembered passages and wondering if they were really as profound and compelling as memory seemed to suggest.
I'm happy to report that they were.
Re-reading the book, I realized that it had deeply affected me on many levels.
Mr. Butler's youthful idealism led him to seek out opportunities to improve the world. While pursuing this quest as a farmer in South America, an inner voice said: "To make whole, be whole". He realized that: "... before being able to help others, I first had to work on myself".
In the early chapters there are many moving and beautifully written vignettes of travels in Africa, America, Australia, Peru and elsewhere. While these are interesting in themselves, they are always judiciously selected to illustrate their effect on the author's inner life. Sometimes they are far from flattering and their inclusion is a testimony to his honesty and humility.
Mr. Butler has a farmer's love and understanding of the land and he writes of nature with a poetic simplicity that comes from a place of great stillness. His prose has the power to transmit this state of mind to the reader:
"I knew heaven this morning, as sun shone over the frosty land. At first I shared it with a little bird, and then with a puddle, and then with some cattle, steaming softly in the yard below. And then a man came, and he alone of all creation, knew it not".
In a less sincere writer the biblical turn of phrase, "knew it not", might sound affected, but in this true and simple vision of a pastoral Eden it strikes an entirely appropriate note.
However, Mr. Butler is much more than a nature mystic with literary talent and the core of the book is concerned with transcendent experience - the times when:
"...the curtains of ordinary, visible existence were drawn aside, and I was shown a glimpse of what lies beyond. All my adventures and (so called) achievements, the countless thoughts, the good and even wonderful events - all seem as nothing compared to these "moments of truth" which shine out as lamps, guiding me home after long years of exile in a foreign land".
But the journey home is not without its difficulties and for me, at least, Mr. Butler's wise and perceptive account of these obstacles and traps is one of the book's most valuable gifts.
His precise and often harrowing descriptions of how the process of spiritual unfoldment involves constant oscillation between profound states of rapture and the pain of estrangement when "normal" consciousness returns, struck a deep chord in me.
Other mystics have of course addressed this theme, but their treatment usually relies heavily on poetic and abstract prose: The "Bride" and "Bridegroom" of St. John of the Cross, or the Sufi aspirant's longing for the elusive "Beloved".
The eternal complaint of mystics is the impossibility of framing their profound insights and experiences in a language which has no vocabulary - or even concepts - capable of expressing such rarified perceptions. Small wonder, then, that so many have resorted to symbolism.
Mr. Butler is the only mystic I know of who succeeds in describing the roller coaster that is spiritual unfoldment in such concrete and personal language, (except perhaps for the neglected early 20th century English writer, Lilian Staveley).
In this he has performed a great service to those who experience similar trials and can draw much comfort from the honesty and immediacy of his account.
Feeling that the Church of England "did not rise to the spiritual direction my young mind required", his early spiritual experiences resulted in a search that eventually led to the School of Meditation run by disciples of Shantan and Saraswati, Shankaracharya of Northern India. Paradoxically, the Shankaracharya's teachings had the effect of deepening Mr. Butler's understanding of the great devotional classics of Christianity, such as The Cloud of Unknowing and The Practice of the Presence of God.
After several decades of work, meditation, travel and adventure, Mr. Butler somehow lost his bearings and entered a soul-destroying period of homelessness, spiritual confusion and intense self-loathing. Fearing madness, he fled to the wilderness (this is a recurring pattern in his life) and ended up working as a cook at a little gas-station in the Mojave Desert, where:
"One evening, after work, I walked far away up the side of the valley and, as I remember, sat there on a rock with my head in my hands. I must have been at about my lowest point. And someone came and stood beside me. Jesus. Invisible, but absolutely sure. I've never doubted it".
This was a turning point and things gradually began to improve: "From then on I felt a new sense of safety in Jesus. It seemed highly significant that, although I had not sought in particular for Jesus, He came, as Savior, to me. Gradually, my practice adjusted itself to become the Jesus prayer".
Returning to England and seeking employment, Mr. Butler visited a Job Centre where a course of Higher Education was suggested. He enrolled as a mature student at the University of Nottingham to study the Russian language. His exploration of the spiritual dimensions of the novels of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, demonstrate a keen critical faculty as well as an ability to read and listen with the heart.
Graduating when almost in his sixtieth year - a time when most people are looking forward to a peaceful retirement - he travelled to Russia to teach English, where:
"...for the first time in my life, I felt amongst my own people..." (Mr. Butler's mother was Siberian).
Sitting quietly in his flat one evening, he experienced the presence of Our Lady, whose being appeared to radiate from an icon on the wall. After this experience his prayer life deepened considerably and mystical experiences are recorded with ever increasing frequency.
This was very interesting to me, having recently read the late Fr. Anthony De Mello's book, Sadhana, which is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary with this comment:
"I am convinced that it is her [The Virgin Mary's] intercession that has obtained for me, and for many of the people I have guided, graces in prayer that we should never have acquired otherwise. There, then, is my first piece of advice to you if you would make progress in the art of contemplation: Seek out her patronage and ask for her intercession before you start out on this way. She has been given the charisma of drawing down the Holy Spirit on the Church, as she did at the Annunciation and at Pentecost, when she prayed with the Apostles. If you get her to pray with you and for you, you will be very fortunate indeed".
Mr. Butler's descriptions of his inner life begin to include what he calls, "windows of realization". I would do him an injustice if I attempted to summarize these insights, but their essence is an experience of union in which the false self, (ego), is temporarily shed and with it the delusional fears and problems that assail us in the realms of separation.
Suffice it to say that the next 250 or so pages contain some of the most profound and subtle writing on the nature of union and duality in the literature of mysticism. As mentioned above, a recurrent theme is the involuntary oscillation between these spiritual polarities. Mr. Butler arrives at a deep understanding of this condition:
"I realize clearly now, and alternatively experience, two worlds. One, where most things, people etc. are outside of oneself, and life is a continuous effort of "me" accepting, rejecting, trying to do, change or be something i.e. rearrange bits of separation. In the other world, everything is experienced inside oneself. It is entirely without effort or desire, and things are seen to happen of themselves (by Grace). Knowledge, for example, is revealed, not learnt. The key is observation from the mind at rest (humility), which also brings realization that one's separate "me" is a self-willed, ignorant imposter, the very cause of separation and trouble (pride). In the all containment of Spirit, prayer for "others" is automatic. Comprehending the whole world within oneself, and being oneself open to divine Grace, the only impediment is rejection of it. To help the world, my entire task is to remove the impediment of "me".
This is the "unseen battle" that begins with the effort to shift the identification of our consciousness to pure awareness, rather than identifying with the contents of that awareness, i.e., thoughts. The chapter, Notes From Stillness, contains much excellent advice on this endeavor.
The spiritual experiences and cosmic visions continue to increase in beauty and intensity, (yet they are always recounted with deep humility and a sense of wonder at being afforded such graces). I often find that simply reading about them induces a remarkable change in my own consciousness (although I make no claim to scale the lofty heights repeatedly attained by the author).
In my opinion, Mr. Butler has written a spiritual classic.
The Wonders of Spiritual Unfoldment is indeed a book to be read again and again. Over time it yields fresh insights and endlessly deepening layers of meaning as the reader's own spiritual unfoldment reveals treasures that were hitherto concealed.
The book's modular structure also makes it ideal for picking up and opening at random whenever inspiration or wise companionship are required. With uncanny regularity I find my eye falling on a passage that contains the precise spiritual truth that I needed to be reminded of at that particular moment.
Weighing in at just over 400 pages, it's a sprawling, big-hearted tapestry of a book that defies every rule of literary composition yet somehow hangs together as a rich, organic whole. There are verses (lyrical, spiritual and didactic); philosophical reflections; letters; essays; journal entries; prose-poems; literary criticism; mystical transports; travel sketches and even a sort of metaphysical FAQ., all strung like glowing pearls on a contextualizing thread of autobiographical narrative.
I see now that the reason I had to revisit the book after only two months was the sheer impossibility of taking so much in at a single reading. Of course, it's equally impossible to do it justice in a review - even a long-winded one like this.
Undoubtedly Mr. Butler is best qualified to pronounce on his own work, so I leave the last word to him:
"This book will not satisfy "me" - nor will it wholly satisfy a thoughtful mind. It does however amply indicate that "me" surrendered opens up into that "treasure in heaven", which ego can neither penetrate nor see. It may at first seem improbable, but as the process gradually unfolds, so gentle and self-evident, you wonder why it is not more widely understood. Troubles are all at the beginning when the murky mind of ego is still trying to include itself in the light. Understand this and the principle of "letting go" becomes clear. Then the way opens to discover that the love, peace, joy and all heart's yearning that elude us in this world, are waiting inexhaustibly in Spirit".
The Book and Mr. Butler's Website: