Monday, 19 December 2016

M.P.Montague: "Twenty Minutes of Reality" (1917; with minor 2016 comments from Toomas Karmo)

[This essay first appeared in 1916 or 1917 or so, anonymously, in  The Atlantic Monthly.  Margaret Prescott Montague (1878-1955; then publicly acknowledged herself to be the author, republishing her essay together with some letters from Atlantic Monthly readers as a book entitled Twenty Minutes of Reality: An Experience: With Some Illuminating Letters Concerning It  (New York:  E.P.Dutton & Company, 1917). Her book may nowadays be downloaded in various formats, including PDF, from The book appears from that website to be nowadays free of copyright encumbrances. - In reproducing Margaret Montague's essay here, I (Kmo) have altered spelling, and in some very minor respects punctuation, to achieve conformity with 2016-era British book-publishing conventions. I otherwise keep the essay intact (the italicized emphases are the author's), checking my own blogger typesetting against a PDF of the book. - I append a few minor comments of my own at the end, in a bolded italic typeface.]  

Revision history:

  • 20161220T0246Z/version 3.0.0: Kmo finished converting his outline(s) to coherent prose. He reserved the right to make minor, nonsubstantive, purely cosmetic tweaks over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions 3.0.1, 3.0.2, 3.0.3, ... . 
  • 20161220T0132Z/version 2.0.0: Kmo added a coarsegrained outline for his envisaged minor comments on Margaret Montague. He hoped to convert this first into a finegrained outline, then into coherent prose, by 20161220T0301Z, in a series of successive uploads.  
  • 20161220T0001Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo uploaded base version (having had time to check his work carefully against a Web-published PDF of the M.P.Montague's book). 

As a child I was afraid of world without end, of life everlasting.  The thought of it used to clutch me at times with a crushing sense of the inevitable, and make me long to run away. But where could one run?  If never-ending life were true, then I was already caught fast in it, and it would never end. Perhaps it had never had a beginning. Life everlasting, eternity, forever and ever: these are tremendous words for even a grown person to face; and for a child - if he grasp their significance at all - they may be hardly short of appalling. The picture that Heaven presented to my mind was of myself, a desperate little atom, dancing in a streak of light around and around and around forever and ever. I do not know what could have suggested such an idea; I only know that I could not think of myself caught there in eternity like a chip in a whirlpool, or say "round again, and round again, and round again" for more than a minute, without hypnotizing myself into a state of sheer terror. Of course, as I grew older I threw off this truly awful conception; yet shorn of its crudeness and looked at with grown-up eyes, there were moments when, much as I believed in, and desired, eternal life, that old feeling of "round again, and round again" would swoop back upon me with all its unutterable weariness, and no state of bliss that I could imagine seemed to me proof forever against boredom. Nevertheless, I still had faith to believe that eternity and enjoyment of life could in some way be squared, though I did not see how it was to be done. I am glad that I had, for I came at last to a time when faith was justified by sight, and it is of that time that I wish to write here. 

If this paper ever chances to be printed, it will be read, I think, by two sets of persons. There will be those who will wonder if I speak of something that is really there, or who will be quite sure that I do not - that I either imagined or made up the whole thing, or else that it was entirely due to the physical condition of convalescence. Others there will be who will believe that I am speaking of the truth that is there, because they, too, have seen it. These last will think that it was not because I was returning to health that I imagined all life as beautiful, but that with the cleared vision that sometimes attends convalescence I "saw into reality", and felt the ecstasy which is always there, but which we are enabled to perceive only on very rare and fleeting occasions.

It is these last for whom I wish to write. If this clearing of the vision is an occasional occurrence of convalescence, then what I saw is of far more value than it would be had my experience been unique.

I do not really know how long the insight lasted. I have said, at a rough guess, twenty minutes. It may have been a little shorter time, it may have been a little longer. But at best it was very transitory.

It happened to me about two years ago, on the day when my bed was first pushed out of doors to the open gallery of the hospital. I was recovering from a surgical operation. I had undergone a certain amount of physical pain, and had suffered for a short time the most acute mental depression which it has ever been my misfortune to encounter. I suppose that this depression was due to physical causes, but at the time it seemed to me that somewhere down there under the anaesthetic, in the black abyss of unconsciousness, I had discovered a terrible secret, and the secret was that there was no God; or if there was one, He was indifferent to all human suffering.

Though I had hardly reëstablished my normal state of faith, still the first acuteness of that depression had faded, and only a scar of fear was left when, several days later, my bed was first wheeled out to the porch.  There other patients took their airing and received their visitors; busy interns and nurses came and went, and one could get a glimpse of the sky, with bare grey branches against it, and of the ground, with here and there a patch of melting snow.

It was an ordinary cloudy March day. I am glad to think that it was.  I am glad to remember that there was nothing extraordinary about the weather, nor any unusualness of setting - no flush of spring or beauty of scenery - to induce what I saw. It was, on the contrary, almost a dingy day. The branches were bare and colourless, and the occasional half-melted piles of snow were a forlorn gray rather than white. Colourless little city sparrows flew and chirped in the trees, while human beings, in no way remarkable, passed along the porch.

There was, however, a wind blowing, and if any outside thing intensified the experience, it was the blowing of that wind. In every other respect it was an ordinary commonplace day. Yet here, in this everyday setting, and entirely unexpectedly (for I had never dreamed of such a thing), my eyes were opened, and for the first time in all my life I caught a glimpse of the ecstatic beauty of reality.

I cannot now recall whether the revelation came suddenly or gradually; I only remember finding myself in the very midst of those wonderful moments, beholding life for the first time in all its young intoxication of loveliness, in its unspeakable joy, beauty, and importance. I cannot say exactly what the mysterious change was. I saw no new thing, but I saw all the usual things in a miraculous new light - in what I believe is their true light. I saw for the first time how wildly beautiful and joyous, beyond any words of mine to describe, is the whole of life.  Every human being moving across that porch, every sparrow that flew, every branch tossing in the wind, was caught in and was a part of the whole mad ecstasy of loveliness, of joy, of importance, of intoxication of life.

It was not that for a few keyed-up moments I imagined all existence as beautiful, but that my inner vision was cleared to the truth so that I saw the actual loveliness which is always there, but which we so rarely perceive; and I knew that every man, woman, bird, and tree, every living thing before me, was extravagantly beautiful, and extravagantly important. And, as I beheld, my heart melted out of me in a rapture of love and delight. A nurse was walking past; the wind caught a strand of her hair and blew it out in a momentary gleam of sunshine, and never in my life before had I seen how beautiful beyond all belief is a woman's hair.  Nor had I ever guessed how marvellous it is for a human being to walk. As for the interns in their white suits, I had never realized before the whiteness of white linen; but much more than that, I had never so much as dreamed of the mad beauty of young manhood. A little sparrow chirped and flew to a nearby branch, and I honestly believe that only "the morning stars singing together, and the sons of God shouting for joy" can in the least express the ecstasy of a bird's flight. I cannot express it, but I have seen it.

Once out of all the gray days of my life I have looked into the heart of reality; I have witnessed the truth; I have seen life as it really is - ravishingly, ecstatically, madly beautiful, and filled to overflowing with a wild joy, and a value unspeakable. For those glorified moments I was in love with every living thing before me - the trees in the wind, the little birds flying, the nurses, the interns, the people who came and went. There was nothing that was alive that was not a miracle. Just to be alive was in itself a miracle. My very soul flowed out of me in a great joy.  

No one can be as happy as I was and not have it show in some way. A stranger passing paused by my bed and said, "What are you lying here all alone looking so happy about?" I made some inadequate response as to the pleasure of being out-of-doors and of getting well. How could I explain all the beauty that I was seeing? How could I say that the grey curtain of unreality had swirled away and that I was seeing into the heart of life? It was not an experience for words. It was an emotion, a rapture of the heart.

Besides all the joy and beauty and that curious sense of importance, there was a wonderful feeling of rhythm as well, only it was somehow just beyond the grasp of my mind. I heard no music, yet there was an exquisite sense of time, as though all life went by to a vast, unseen melody.  Everything that moved wove out a little thread of rhythm in this tremendous whole. When a bird flew, it did so because somewhere a note had been struck for it to fly on; or else its flying struck the note; or else again the great Will that is Melody willed that it should fly. When people walked, somewhere they beat out a bit of rhythm that was in harmony with the whole great theme.

Then, the extraordinary importance of everything! Every living creature was intensely alive and intensely beautiful, but it was as well of a marvellous value. Whether this value was in itself or a part of the whole, I could not see; but it seemed as though before my very eyes I actually beheld the truth of Christ's saying that not even a sparrow falls to the ground without the knowledge of the Father in Heaven. Yet what the importance was, I did not grasp.  If my heart could have seen just a little further I should have understood. Even now the tips of my thoughts are forever on the verge of grasping it, forever just missing it. I have a curious half-feeling that somewhere, deep inside of myself, I know very well what this importance is, and have always known; but I cannot get it from the depth of myself into my mind, and thence into words. But whatever it is, the importance seemed to be nearer to beauty and joy than to an anxious morality. I had a feeling that it was in some way different from the importance I had usually attached to life.

It was perhaps as though that great value in every living thing was not so much here and now in ourselves as somewhere else. There is a great significance in every created thing, but the significance is beyond our present grasp. I do not know what it is; I only know that it is there, and that all life is far more valuable than we ever dream of its being. Perhaps the following quotation from Milton may be what I was conscious of:-

         What if earth 

Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein 

Each to each other like, more than on earth is thought. 

What if here we are only symbols of ourselves, and our real being is somewhere else, - perhaps in the heart of God? Certainly that unspeakable importance had to do with our relationship to the great Whole ; but what the relationship was, I could not tell.  Was it a relationship of love toward us, or only the delight in creation?  But it is hardly likely that a glimpse of a cold Creator could have filled me with such an extravagant joy, or so melted the heart within me. For those fleeting, lovely moments I did indeed, and in truth, love my neighbour as myself. Nay, more: of myself I was hardly conscious, while with my neighbour in every form, from wind-tossed branches and little sparrows flying, up to human beings, I was madly in love. Is it likely that I could have experienced such love if there were not some such emotion at the heart of Reality? If I did not actually see it, it was not that it was not there, but that I did not see quite far enough.

Perhaps this was because I was still somewhat in the grip of that black doubt which I had experienced, and of which I have spoken. I think it was owing to this doubt also that afterwards I had a certain feeling of distrust. I was afraid that all that beauty might be an uncaring joy. As if, though we were indeed intensely important in some unguessed way to the great Reality, our own small individual sorrows were perhaps not of much moment. I am not sure that I actually had this feeling, as it is very difficult, after the lapse of almost two years, to recapture in memory all the emotions of so fleeting and so unusual an experience. If I did, however, I comfort myself, as I have said, with the thought of the intense joy that I experienced. The vision of an uncaring Reality would hardly have melted me to such happiness. That the Creator is a loving Creator I believe with all my heart; but this is belief, not sight. What I saw that day was an unspeakable joy and loveliness, and a value to all life beyond anything that we have knowledge of; while in myself I knew a wilder happiness than I have ever before or since experienced.

Moreover, though there was nothing exactly religious in what I saw, the accounts given by people who have passed through religious conversion or illumination come nearer to describing my emotions than anything else that I have come across.

These testimonies I read almost a year after my hospital episode. I came upon them by chance, and was astonished to find that they were describing very much what I had passed through. I think if I had had nothing to match them in my own experience I should almost certainly have felt sure that these people, because of the emotional excitement within themselves, imagined all the beauties that they described. Now I believe that they are describing what is actually there. Nor are poets making up - as the average mind believes, and as I think I always believed - the extravagant beauty of which they sing. They are telling us of the truth that is there, and which they are occasionally enabled to see.

Here are some of the testimonies offered by people who have experienced illumination in one form or another.

"Natural objects were glorified," one person affirms. "My spiritual vision was so clarified that I saw beauty in every natural object in the universe." Another says, "When I went into the field to work, the glory of God appeared in all his visible creation. I well remember we reaped oats, and how every straw and beard of the oats seaned, as it were, arrayed in a kind of rainbow glory, or to glow, if I may so express it, in the glory of God." The father of Rabindranath Tagore thus describes his illumination: "I felt a serenity and joy which I had never experienced before ... the joy I felt ... that day overflowed my soul.... I could not sleep that night. The reason of my sleeplessness was the ecstasy of soul; as if moonlight had spread itself over my mind for the whole of that night." And when Tagore speaks of his own illumination he says, "It was morning; I was watching the sunrise in Free School Street. A veil was suddenly drawn and everything I saw became luminous. The whole scene was one perfect music; one marvellous rhythm."  (Note his sense of rhythm, of which I was also conscious.) "The houses in the street, the children playing, all seemed part of one luminous whole - inexpressibly glorified." (Perhaps the significance of that tremendous importance which I felt, but failed to grasp, was that we are all parts of a wonderful whole.) "I was full of gladness, full of love for every tiniest thing."

And this was what - in a smaller degree - I, too, saw for those fleeting moments out there upon the hospital porch. Mine was, I think, a sort of accidental clearing of the vision by the rebirth of returning health. I believe that a good many people have experienced the same thing during convalescence. Perhaps this is the way in which we should all view life if we were born into it grown up. As it is, when we first arrive we are so engaged in the tremendous business of cutting teeth, saying words, and taking steps, that we have no time for, and little consciousness of, outside wonders; and by the time we have the leisure for admiration life has lost for us its first freshness. Convalescence is a sort of grown-up rebirth, enabling us to see life with a fresh eye.

Doubtless almost any intense emotion may open our "inward eye" to the beauty of reality. Falling in love appears to do it for some people. The beauties of nature or the exhilaration of artistic creation does it for others.  Probably any high experience may momentarily stretch our souls up on tiptoe, so that we catch a glimpse of that marvellous beauty which is always there, but which we are not often tall enough to perceive.

Emerson says, "We are immersed in beauty, but our eyes have no clear vision." I believe that religious conversion more often clears the eyes to this beauty of truth than any other experience; and it is possible that had I not still been somewhat under that black cloud of doubt, I should have seen further than I did. Yet what I did see was very good indeed.

The following quotation from Canon Inge may not be entirely out of place in this connection : "Incidentally I may say that the peculiar happiness which accompanies every glimpse of insight into truth and reality, whether in the scientific, aesthetic, or emotional sphere, seems to me to have a greater apologetic value than has been generally recognized. It is the clearest possible indication that the truth is for us the good, and forms the ground of a reasonable faith that all things, if we could see them as they are, would be found to work together for good to those who love God."

In what I saw there was nothing seemingly of an ethical nature. There were no new rules of conduct revealed by those twenty minutes.  Indeed, it seemed as though beauty and joy were more at the heart of Reality than an over-anxious morality. It was a little as though (to transpose the quotation),

I had slept and dreamed that life was duty,

But waked to find that life was beauty. 

Perhaps at such times of illumination there is no need to worry over sin, for one is so transported by the beauty of humanity, and so poured out in love toward every human being, that sin becomes almost impossible.

Perhaps duty may merely point the way. When one arrives at one's destination it would be absurd to go back and reconsult the guidepost. Blindness of heart may be the real sin, and if we could only purify our hearts to behold the beauty that is all about us, sin would vanish away. When Christ says, "Seek ye the Kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you," He may mean by "all these things" spiritual virtues even more than things temporal, such as what we shall eat, and wherewithal we shall be clothed. It may be that He stood forever conscious of a transcendent beauty, and joy, and love, and that what grieved Him most was mankind's inability to behold what was there before their very eyes.

Perhaps, too, this may be the great difference between the saints and the Puritans. Both are agreed that goodness is the means to the end, but the saints have passed on to the end and entered into the realization, and are happy. (One of the most endearing attributes of saints of a certain type was - or rather is, for one refuses to believe that saints are all of the past - their childlike gaiety, which can proceed only from a happy and trustful heart.) The Puritan, on the other hand, has stuck fast in the means - is still worrying over the guideposts, and is distrustful and over-anxious.

It is like walking and dancing.  One could never dance unless he had first learned to walk, or continue to dance unless walking were always possible; yet if one is too intent upon the fact of walking, dancing becomes impossible. The Puritan walks in a worried morality; the saint dances in the vision of God's love; and doubtless both are right dear in the sight of the Lord, but the saint is the happiest.

Father Tyrrell says, "For Jesus the moral is not the highest life, but its condition."

Some may object that I preach a dangerous doctrine; others, that I am trying to whip a mad moment of Pagan beauty into line with Christian thought. Possibly I am; yet I am trying not to do the one or the other.  I am merely wondering, and endeavouring to get at the truth of something that I saw.

And all the beauty is forever there before us, forever piping to us, and we are forever failing to dance. We could not help but dance if we could see things as they really are. Then we should kiss both hands to Fate and fling our bodies, hearts, minds, and souls into life with a glorious abandonment, an extravagant, delighted loyalty, knowing that our wildest enthusiasm cannot more than brush the hem of the real beauty and joy and wonder that is always there.  

This is how, for me, all fear of eternity has been wiped away. I have had a little taste of bliss, and if Heaven can offer this, no eternity will be too long to enjoy the miracle of existence. But that was not the greatest thing that those twenty minutes revealed, and that did most to end all dread of life everlasting.  The great thing was the realization that weariness, and boredom, and questions as to the use of it all, belong entirely to unreality. When once we wake to Reality - whether we do so here or have to wait for the next life for it, - we shall never be bored, for in Reality there is no such thing.

Chesterton has pointed out the power for endless enjoyment of the same thing which most children possess, and suggested that this is a Godlike capacity; that perhaps to God His creation always presents itself with a freshness of delight; that perhaps the rising of the sun this morning was for Him the same ecstatic event that it was upon the first day of its creation. I think it was the truth of this suggestion that I perceived in those twenty minutes of cleared vision, and realized that in the youth of eternity we shall recapture that God-like and child-like attribute which the old age and unreality of Time have temporarily snatched from us.

No; I shall have no more fear of eternity. And even if there were no other life, this life here and now, if we could but open our dull eyes to see it in its truth, is lovely enough to require no far-off Heaven for its justification. Heaven, in all its springtide of beauty, is here and now, before our very eyes, surging up to our very feet, lapping against our hearts; but we, alas, know not how to let it in!

Once again, when I was almost recovered, I had another fleeting visitation of this extreme beauty. A friend came into my room dressed for the opera. I had seen her thus a great number of times before, but for a moment I saw her clothed in all that wild beauty of Reality, and, as before, my heart melted with joy at the sight. But this second occasion was even more transitory than the first, and since then I have had no return.  Tagore's illumination, he says, lasted for seven or eight days and Jacob Boehme knew a "Sabbath calm" of the soul that lasted for seven days, during which he was, as it were, inwardly surrounded by a divine light.  "The triumph that was then in my soul," he says, "I can neither tell nor describe; I can only liken it to a resurrection from the dead."

And this miraculous time was with him for a whole week, while I have only tasted it for those few short minutes! But he was a saint, and had really ascended to the holy hill of the Lord through clean hands and a pure heart, while I was swept there momentarily, and, as it were, by accident, through the rebirth of returning health. But when the inspired ones testify to a great joy and a great beauty I, too, can cry, "Yes, I have seen it also! Yes, O Beauty, O Reality, O Mad Joy! I, too, have seen you face to face!" And though I have never again touched the fullness of that ecstatic vision, I know all created things to be of a beauty and value unspeakable, and I shall not fail to pay homage to all the loveliness with which existence overflows.  Nor shall I fear to accord to all of life's experiences, whether sad or gay, as high, as extravagant, and as undismayed a tribute of enthusiasm as I am capable of.

Perhaps some day I shall meet it face to face again. Again the grey veil of unreality will be swirled aside; once more I shall see into Reality. Sometimes still, when the wind is blowing through trees or flowers, I have an eerie sense that I am almost in touch with it. The veil was very thin in my garden one day last summer. The wind was blowing there, and I knew that all that beauty and wild young ecstasy at the heart of life was rioting with it through the tossing larkspurs and rose-pink Canterbury bells, and bowing with the foxgloves; only I just could not see it. But it is there - it is always there - and some day I shall meet it again.  The vision will clear, the inner eye open, and again all that mad joy will be upon me. Some day - not yet perhaps - but some day!


The sequence of events is interesting, in suggesting a careful observer. First comes Montague's experience of eternity. Then comes her realization, from her reading "almost a year later", that others have had experiences resembling hers. Finally, about two years on, comes her publication - first anonymously, in an eminent literary periodical, and then in her duly acknowledged book. 

The reference to "cleared vision" recalls a common experience in mathematics study. When we return to some problem after an hour's break, the mind moves with a sudden easiness, rendering possible, and even pleasant, what had previously seemed out of reach.

The reference to "rhythm" recalls the timeless, and yet rhythmic, aesthetic of mathematics, as in the intricacies of the circular functions (including Fourier series), or the intricacies of transfinite ordinals, or the intricacies of topology. One does, however, think also of the actual intricacies of the physical world, in which mathematics becomes so-to-speak incarnate - as when, for instance, a violin string is observed to vibrate, or the Sun's outermost opaque layer to pulsate, in multiple, arithmetically intricate, modes. We have a similar experience of incarnation when we find electrons to be standing waves in Schrödinger's formalism, akin to the waves on a violin string. 

Specially helpful are Montague's remarks on the importance of physical things (she refers, for instance, to human hair, to white linen, and to sparrows): "I know very well what this importance is, and have always known; but I cannot get it from the depth of myself into my mind, and thence into words."

My guess is that there is an importance to things which is somehow simple, and is in a sense already known to us, even though we cannot yet raise it out of our depths to the level of our discursively reasoning minds. Our difficulty calls to mind a dictum from Plotinus: "As speech is the echo of the thought in the Soul, so thought in the Soul is an echo from elsewhere: that is to say, as the uttered thought is an image of the soul-thought, so the soul-thought images a thought above itself /.../" 

In general, I like to think of eternity on the following analogy: You die, and two seconds after you die you see Marilyn Monroe walking arm in arm with Pope John XXIII, and Pope John says in bad English, "It's a nice-a place-a we gotta here," and Ms Monroe (chewing on her bubble gum) says, "We was worried about you, Honey." My point here is that there is some kind of surprise - some kind of unexpected thing - in store, which when encountered will seem at first shocking, but on closer consideration will prove exceedingly natural, logical, and simple. 

I do respectfully dissent from Margaret Montague's tentatively offered suggestion that "here we are only symbols of ourselves".  I think of the familiar physical world as fully real and as acquiring its theological worth from the fact of its reality. Admittedly, I have no argument to offer in defence of this dissenting opinion, beyond the argument that only the real can possess, in Margaret Montague's arresting language, "importance". 

Margaret Montague's passage regarding the garden is particularly fine: "The veil was very thin in my garden one day last summer. The wind was blowing there /.../"

Have a very blessed Christmas, everyone! 

[This is the end of the present blog posting. Although there might be something in the next few days from my desk on the perennial problem of David Dunlap Observatory and Park conservation, I think that I shall omit to do any blogging in the normally scheduled four-hour window of UTC=20161227T0001Z/20161227T0401Z, and that I shall return to the normal blogging to the normal blogging routine a fortnight from now - that is to say, in the four-hour window of UTC=20170103T0001Z/20170103T0004Z.] 

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