A couple of weeks ago, I discovered a new blog, The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast. Bo, the blogger, had a lot to say on topics of interest to me: Druidry, medieval literature and culture, Celtic language, literature and linguistics, et cetera. He also had an interesting sidebar listing people whom he admires, ranging from Camille Paglia to Andrew Harvey to Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.
So after reading his heartfelt post on Harvey, I was inspired to grab one of the man’s memoirs, Sun at Midnight, which details the breakdown of his relationship with his long-time guru, Mother Meera, and the solidification of a romantic relationship into a permanent commitment.
Sun at Midnight turned out to be a gripping read. It may be the first book by Harvey that I have finished, because it exhibited everything I dislike in Harvey’s writing, which is to say it exhibited everything I dislike in Andrew Harvey.
There is a streak I have sometimes come across in a certain type of person who’s deeply interested in spiritual matters, and it runs as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon in Harvey’s writing. It is hard to describe without sounding utterly judgmental, which is why I couldn’t grapple with this post until my brain was up to speed. I think of it as self-promotion, as attention-getting. “HEY! look at ME! I’m so MYSTICAL! I’m so SPIRITUAL! I wanna talk about GOD!” This attention-getting display is followed by a twenty-minute disquisition on a) the Council of Nicaea, b) the Divine Feminine, or c) Julian of Norwich, depending on who the attention-getter is.
The impression I get so often is that Harvey and the attention-getters are far less interested in God and the direct experience thereof than they are in being recognized by other people as Mystical, Spiritual, Lovers of the Divine. And if cold hard facts interfere with their melodramatic love affair with the Divine, then the facts had just better get out of the way. I can still recall one well-known mystical blogger who described Julian of Norwich as living in a cozy little village. I hated to be the one to tell him that Norwich was one of the largest cities in England in Julian’s day, a seaport second only to London in its importance. The streets that ran past Julian’s cozy little anchorhold were filled with street cries, merchants, carts, and the business of daily life. But that was ever so much duller than his fantasy, and I don’t think he took much notice of my comment.
The real problem, of course, is the fear of looking, of acting Just Like these people who annoy me. Or is the real problem that while they’re holding everyone’s attention with their extensive knowledge of mysticism, church history, and what not, I can spot all the mistakes they’re making–because I read the same material when I was twelve or thirteen? I know all about this stuff… I just don’t wave it around in front of people. (Except for that dinner party where E. and I started talking about Nicene theology and the Definition of Chalcedon….)
I can see, I think, why Harvey appeals to many people and how he might help them, by opening up possibilities for a deeper relationship with Reality outside What They Learned in Sunday School or What The Pastor Said Last Sunday. But while waving the banner of Guru-less Religion, of The Direct Path to God, he seems to be leaving behind not only the institution and the guru, but other people. There is little room in his mysticism, the flight of the alone to the Alone (except when accompanied by beautiful gay lover), for dealing with ordinary, messy, non-mystical people. I sometimes want to remind fans of mysticism that all the great figures they most admire–Rumi, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and so forth–were deeply immersed in community and firmly anchored in an institution. They not only enjoyed mystical raptures, they did boring things like say a Daily Office, take Communion, teach students, counsel confused visitors. They did not merely spend their time writing books about how passionate and wonderful they are.
At the other end of the spectrum, I’m re-reading Ken Wilber’s One Taste, a digest of his journal from around 1999. He had a visit from Harvey and his partner Eryk Hanut not long after the events chronicled in Sun at Midnight, which he notes in the journal. I don’t have my copy handy, but he says something like, “Andrew, being a Romantic, is in the hate phase of his love/hate relationship with Mother Meera. They have had a hard time, but he and Eryk seem very happy together.” That’s a lot different from Harvey’s accounts of the Great Mother Goddess blessing the whole world through his life-affirming tantric blowjob of Eryk. (And no, I am not making this up.)
Wilber is rather an odd duck. A widower, a philosopher, a prolific writer, he comes across in his writing as a person who is simultaneously excited by the ideas he’s exploring and stone cold sober. He can write with equal flair about maintaining conscious awareness through all three states of consciousness–waking, dreaming, and deep sleep–and about visiting South Beach, Miami, with his girlfriend for a mad holiday. If he tells me he’s been conscious, aware, in some sense *awake* during deep dreamless sleep–I believe him. His words have the undeniable ring of someone who is writing about what he has experienced, and who has tried to understand his experience and integrate it into his life. He is not a man who will mistake an orgasm for a mystical experience, or vice versa–nor is he one to deny it when a mystical experience and an orgasm happen at the same time.
I wish I had a clever conclusion to this post, but I don’t think I do. All I can say is that I’ll be reading more Wilber and less Harvey, and watching my behavior to make sure I’m not shouting for undeserved attention.