Cosmic Consciousness, by Richard Maurice Bucke, , at sacred-texts.com
Case of J. W. W., Largely in His Own Words.
He was born August 11th, 1853. The date of his illumination was January 20th, 1885. He is an architect. He has always been an earnest man, anxious to know the right and to do it. After the momentary attainment of Cosmic Consciousness he became still more bent upon pursuing the same path. Before his illumination he was an agnostic and sceptic, as the annexed autobiographic sketch will show. Not only did he not believe but he had no hope. After illumination he never again doubted the infinite beneficence of the central and over-ruling power of the universe. Although in this case the Cosmic Sense came for a moment only and then passed away, probably for the remainder of life, yet was the man by it incredibly ennobled. That seems the best term for the change that took place in him. Though not a Buddha, a Christ or a Whitman, he was, from that time, clearly superior to the average man. In proof of which statement the fact may be cited that a number of the best young men of his town sought him out and constituted him, under the name of "Master," their spiritual leader. These men have, as the present writer can personally testify, for years tendered this man their personal affection and reverence for no other reason than that they saw clearly in him a superior spiritual nature, which superiority was never detected or suspected in him until after the oncoming of the Cosmic Sense
in 1885. J. W. W. has since his illumination devoted his life to the intellectual and moral elevation of himself and his friends.
Here follows an autobiographic sketch, written for the purpose of showing in what manner and under what circumstances he entered into the new life. The pages were not written for this book nor at the instigation of the writer of it. They were, in fact, written before the present writer knew J. W. W., and forthat reason are all the more valuable in this place. Neither were they written to illustrate or support any theory. J. W. W. had and has no theory on the subject. All he knows, or perhaps cares to know, in this connection is that he at that moment entered into relation with a higher form of life, and learned, as Paul says, "unspeakable things"—such things, at all events, as were and are of quite unspeakable importance to him, any doubt of the truth of which things has been, and (as he thinks) always will be, entirely out of the question.
J. W. W., then, addressing his intimate friends, the young and middle-aged men mentioned above, who surround him, and, as said, call him "Master," spoke as follows:
I need not tell you, I think, that my mother's last illness and death were, by immeasurable odds, the heaviest grief and pain I have ever known, or shall, probably, ever know. But it is also true that the memory of them is for all time my most precious and priceless possession.
That period was the supreme moment of my life and its deepest experience. In ordinary life we live only on the surface of things, our attention distracted endlessly by the shallowest illusions and baubles.
We discuss with a light heart, and very much at our own ease, the great problems we have been discussing lately in the college (of immortality and the infinite goodness), but are not deeply concerned in them, and care but little what their solutions may be.
But a great bereavement strips the scales from our eyes and compels us, in the intense solitude of our own souls, to gaze into the unfathomable depths in which we float and to question their vast and solemn meanings. It comes upon us clothed in thick darkness and mystery, and pierces our hearts with unutterable agony and grief, but it may be that the darkest hours of its visitation, the supreme moment itself, may also prove a revelation to our souls of the
For myself I cannot doubt that this was my own experience. To speak of it is to profane it. I am unworthy to so much as hint at it. But it has been the comfort of my life ever since.
Alas, for the years that have followed! One momentary glimpse into the ineffable brightness, followed by gathering clouds and darkness, painful stumblings and wide errors, unsupported by any recognizable spiritual aid or presence, the heavens deaf and careless to my most earnest prayers and agonizings, nay, even slighting them, so far as appeared. But through it all, like the steadfast shining of a clear star, the memory of that sacred time has remained deep in my heart, and I have never really doubted for a moment that an Infinite Wisdom and Love does encircle all our lives—tender, pitying and sympathizing. We may pass our lives without ever realizing it, doubting it, nay, flatly denying it. But it is there; and he to whom the vision has ever come at all, though in the briefest transient flash of momentary consciousness, can never again forget it, though his whole after path may be enveloped in darkness and he himself may fall into gross error and backsliding.
I received the ordinary orthodox training of the Presbyterian Church. I was baptized and was a regular attendant at church and Sunday school till well on in my teens.
I attribute at least equal importance, in the formative elements of my religious training, to the daily practice at home, while I was a boy, of family worship. I recall now, as I write, with reverent emotion, the tender tones of my mother's voice, as it pleaded especially for her only deeply loved child.
I was always a lover of books, and I was not far in my teens before I began to learn something of the opposition between the teaching of science and many of the beliefs I had been taught. This discovery was a gradual one, and I will only give a brief outline of the position in which I was ultimately landed.
I learned that the first chapter of Genesis was, at least, a very crude statement of the actual fact. At one time I was an ardent and enthusiastic student of Hugh Miller's books and rested content with the reconciliation he sought to establish between the teaching of his beloved science, Geology, and the Biblical record. But I had to give it up when I came to read and study Darwin's and other books and to acquaint myself with the most recent geological discoveries. I remember well the enthusiasm with which I copied in writing Professor Huxley's famous address to the Geological Section of the British Association, in which he traced the pedigree of the horse to its progenitors in the Eocene period and the clear evidence of its evolution.
Darwinism demolished for me the Biblical account of creation, the authority of the Bible and the account it gives of the origin of evil and the fall of man. This last clearly involves the whole theological superstructure based upon it, including the so-called scheme of redemption and the doctrine of the atonement. The legends of the flood, the tower of Babel, the dispersion of man and the origin of different languages were minor matters of comparatively trifling importance.
I remember the delight with which I read Tyndall's book on "Heat as a
One cannot read much in physiological science without serious reflection on the nature of consciousness, the relation between mind and physical structure and the bearings of all this on the belief in personal immortality. It has always seemed clear to me that the only logical outcome of the considerations put forward by science are flatly and altogether opposed to such belief.
To sum up: Science destroyed for me all belief in the Biblical legends of the creation and the fall of man, etc., and in the doctrine of the atonement, and at least gravely questioned all narratives of miracle, the probability of answer to prayer and the idea of personal immortality. The whole idea, too, of the divine incarnation of Christ on our insignificant atom of a world seemed out of keeping with the august spectacle of the infinite universe and its immeasurable duration. But my reading was never exclusively scientific, and my thoughts accordingly were always modified by other considerations.
I learned something of Descartes, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel and Spinoza. What the effect of it all was upon me it is impossible for me now to analyze or to tell. But let a man once get fairly into his head the teaching of Kant that time and space only exist as the condition of our consciousness, and the discussion of immortality will seem irrelevant—he will feel the very basis of his speculations crumble beneath his feet. From my earliest youth I have acknowledged two masters, to whom I continually turned and whom I have studied with ever-fresh interest and delight—Carlyle and Emerson—two widely different men but fundamentally alike in the absolute honesty and sincerity of their teaching, their noble and heroic character, and their steady, life-long consecration to the service of the highest. Both of them rejected the materialistic conception of the world, which they regarded as spiritual in its essence, and each believed in his own way in a divine purpose—Emerson with genial and growing optimism, Carlyle with an accompanying Hebraic sense of the mystery and terror of evil.
But neither from Carlyle nor Emerson will a student. derive any firm conviction on the subject of individual immortality. Carlyle preferred to leave it a mystery, about which nothing can be definitely said with true assurance, but about which much may be hoped. Emerson, in the main, really believed it, but may be quoted on both sides of the subject. "The questions we lust to have answered are," he declared, "a confession of sin." He preached an unconditional submission and trust. Believe with all your heart and soul that all is well and ask no questions. If it is best that you should continue you will do so; if not, you should not wish it. And the whole subject, he believed, belongs to a much higher plane than that on which it is usually discussed.
The foregoing are only very crude and sketchy outlines of the intellectual gropings, questionings, studies and complex, many-sided experiences and difficulties of many years. But they will help you to partially understand my position at the time I write of.
And now to my narrative: I will not trouble you with any particulars which do not seem to me necessary for my purpose. And these I will give as briefly as is consistent with the clearness and right coloring of the picture I want to present. I feel, however, that I must, at the outset, make a disclaimer. I do not want you to judge of my character as a son from my devotion to my mother on her deathbed. As a matter of fact I was never in the true sense "a good son." I have too many grave faults and strong opposing idiosyncrasies for that. And I have innumerable bitter memories of harshness, temper, selfish
It is perhaps hardly necessary to speak of my mother. She was not without faults or weaknesses either. She had good qualities in an exceptional degree that I need not analyze or speak of. But it is necessary for my purpose that I should refer to what was her ruling passion—a deep, constant, absorbing and self-sacrificing love for her only son. Every one knows something of the sacred depths of a mother's love. But very few can sound their profound abysses as it has been my lot to do.
Many circumstances threw us more together than is usual. For one thing, my father was much from home. My own tastes and pursuits kept me more closely at home than is the case with most young men. Our natures, too, were similar in many ways. Naturally I was in many things my mother's confidant. Her sufferings and declining strength made her more and more dependent upon me and knit our hearts together more closely as time went on.
She suffered excruciating pains at times. She became lame and lost the power to stand. If my father was at home he would carry her upstairs at night to bed; if not, she crept to the foot of the stairs and pulled herself up step by step. But on no account would she let me carry her, fearing that I might strain or hurt myself. But eventually she had to allow me, and after that I always carried her upstairs.
She was always poorly in the morning and suffered great internal pain. I used to regularly take her up a cup of tea to breakfast, but she ate next to nothing.
Some eighteen months before she died she told me that she believed she suffered from an internal cancer. I had long urged her to let me call in a doctor, and I now insisted upon it.
For a long time she would not allow it, but finally yielded, and Dr. R. was called in. She seemed more bright and cheerful after his visit. She told me that his verdict was that it was not a cancer, but the facts which led her to think it was were the results of her rheumatism. It was a happy relief to me, and I dismissed altogether the dreadful ideas which had weighed like lead upon my heart. As a matter of fact it was a cancer, and my mother soon came to know it without a shadow of doubt. But in her self-sacrificing regard for me she kept all knowledge back from me, and in the weary, painful and gloomy months that followed I lived in absolute ignorance of the real facts of the case. Perhaps it was better so. I really believe that if I had known, the dreadful knowledge would have killed me. As it was I was supported by groundless hopes. And even so, the pain of it and the daily strain on my heart and mind were almost more than I could bear, and their effects have remained with me ever since.
I will say as little as possible of that time. I will only note her visibly declining strength, the solitude and many miseries of her lot, her absorbing and endless solicitude for me, her complete indifference to self and her constant
So the days and weeks and months dragged on in ever-deepening gloom, till the fateful month of January, 1885. As my mother's strength became less and less her time for going to bed grew earlier, from ten to half-past nine, to nine, to half-past eight, to eight. It pained me excessively to note this, and every night after she had gone I felt unspeakably sad and wretched as I thought of the future. I could not bear to part with her. I used to keep her as long as possible, joke with her and do my best to cheer her as well as myself. But her weariness getting too great she would often lose patience and say, with pathetic entreaty, "Willie, do take me," "Why don't you take me?" or "Willie, do let me go." After that there was nothing for it but to take her at once.
On the 9th of January, 1885, I went to a birthday party. I was far from well, and I had no heart for it, but I went to tea, came home at eight to take my mother to bed (for the last time it turned out) and went back, not returning till between one and two. During the night I was awakened by my mother knocking at the wall. She felt faint, she said, and asked me to bring her a glass of water. I asked if I should make tea, and she said she preferred water, which I got her. I grieve to say that I was altogether harsh, unsympathetic and ungracious. I ought to have known that she needed more, and without a moment's thought for myself should have got it. She thanked me with her usual tenderness and I went to bed again.
Next morning when I took her tea it all came out. During the night she had crept out of bed and fainted on the floor. On recovery she had managed with much painful effort to get into bed again. She would not disturb or trouble me, knowing what she did, but felt compelled at last to rouse me and ask for a glass of water. Fancy it! Cold water! and rendered with unsympathetic grumbling at that. I have never forgiven myself for my far worse than stupidity and callousness. My mother, however, in her sweet, serene charity and loving kindness forgave me from the first.
I will not go into details of the illness that followed. She did not get up that day, though serenely cheerful, hopeful and loving. My father came home in the afternoon and she seemed a little better, but at night grew worse and slightly delirious. Early next morning (Sunday) I brought the doctor, and I learned for the first time, what others knew, that she had been really suffering from cancer all the time and that recovery was impossible, though the inevitable end might possibly be averted for a time. It was a horrible blow to me. I hunted up a nurse and was in constant attendance on her myself till the end came—nine days after.
On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday she continued to improve, and my heart grew lighter and more cheerful. Then she began to grow worse and went step by step down, down into the Valley of the Shadow.
I will pass on rapidly to the closing scenes. But I must note first the following
I am sorry to give you painful details, and I only do so where it is necessary for my ultimate purpose. But I am compelled to give you some details of closing scenes.
The night but one before she died was the most horrible night I ever spent. As usual, in such wasting diseases, the waste of the body, after devastating the muscular system, attacks the nervous system. When this stage is reached the patient enters on a period of horrible unrest and weariness, passionately longing for rest and incessantly and vainly seeking it by a change of position. Every night, in the delirium of her illness, she felt something of this weariness and would, at the close of the day, call on me, in the old familiar words, "Willie, do take me upstairs; do take me." On this particular night, similar cries rang in my ears the whole horrible night long—"Willie, do take me," "Do let me go," "Why don't you let me go?" The words pierced my heart. I knew that the rest she sought could only come in death, and my heart was hot in angry rebellion. I could not let her go. Fate was too much for me. But it was an unspeakable cruel fate, and every faculty in me rose in passionate protest and resentment. I changed her position again and again, adjusted and smoothed her pillow, and for a few brief moments she would lie quiet. Then again the old, incessant, heart-piercing cries, "Willie, do let me go," "Do take me," "Why don't you let me go?" And so, again and again, through the whole length of the horrible night.
Next day she was quieter. The doctor said it was only a question of hours. In the afternoon she seemed utterly exhausted and for a time we thought she was dying. My father, Mrs. D. (the nurse) and I stood looking on in momentary expectation of the end. I was quite tired out, heart and body, sullen and resentful. It was of a piece with the whole horrible thing that she should die thus, without any sign or leave taking. But it was not to be so and she revived again. About seven o'clock that night I was alone with her. She was unconscious. I kneeled at her bedside, my face down on the bed. My brain felt scorched and the whole thing a horrible nightmare. It was no longer my mother lying there but a ghastly automaton, I myself an automaton, both alike driven in a vast world machine, remorseless, brainless and heartless, crushing all before it. Later on, my father, coming upstairs, must have been alarmed about me and compelled me to go an errand, which he declared absolutely necessary. I think it probable that my going out for a short time saved my reason. Late at night my father drove me to bed. I refused. I could not go, or lose any of the precious time now left me with my mother, but I agreed ultimately to go for two hours at most, if he would rouse me sooner in case of change. Very reluctantly I went, but I was quite spent and I slept soundly till six, my father letting me sleep on. I at once hastened to the room and stayed there till the end, about one o'clock.
I went downstairs and told Mrs. D. and the nurse that all was over, and they went upstairs to render the last sad offices. I came into this room (the room in which this paper was read) and gave myself up to a long, heavy fit of sobbing—sobbing, however, no longer of grief, but of great relief, recognition of the mighty comfort that had come into my heart and of resigned and loving farewell.
During the days that followed and until after the funeral I felt a great calm and peace of mind and heart, a peace of mind which I venture to say was no other than "the peace of God that passeth all understanding." It passed away, but the memory of it remained. Grief and the sense of irrecoverable loss had their natural course, and I spent many weeks of sleeplessness and tears.
I have no hope that my words will convey more than a poor fraction of the real facts. At best I can only sketch these in rudest outline. But I will ask you to consider a few of the most prominent in the narrative I have given you.
Remember what I have said of the spiritual questionings of many years and their results. Consider how my mother's long and frightful suffering revealed and strengthened as nothing else could, not only the sweet and lovable qualities of her heart and mind and the strength of the hope and faith which sustained her through it all, but also the length and breadth and depth of her wonderful self-sacrificing love for me, which grew only stronger, deeper and more tender as she advanced further into the shadow of our inevitable parting. And when the last stroke fell upon her and she was confined to her bed never
Human words are poor instruments for the expression of such realities. But beyond the touch of all possible argument, despite the apparent experiences of my life since and my backslidings, I knew that a divine providence was at work in my hour of utmost need summing up the long gropings and processes of the past, and despite all earthly darknesses and sin illumining all my future course with an infinite hope.
I no longer trouble myself with the difficulties raised by metaphysics and philosophy about the personality of God, for, however that may be, I know that there is that in Him to which I may address myself as to a loving friend and father. I no longer trouble myself with the discussions about God's providence and the contrary evidences of life and experiences, for I have seen His providence visibly at work, summing up in a crowning experience the processes of long years, in events which were entirely natural in their order and course,
a. J. W. W.'s narrative makes it quite clear that he had the earnestness of mind and desire for spiritual growth which, as we have seen, seem to be prerequisites to illumination.
b. His age, upon the occurrence of this last, was thirty-one and a half years.
c. There was no experience of subjective light.
d. Intellectual illumination was well marked.
e. And moral exaltation still more so.
f. Although he does not give details (perhaps could not do so), it is clear that he experienced something very near akin to the. Cosmic vision, if he did not even see the Brahmic Splendor itself.
g. The "peace and knowledge" spoken of by Whitman and referred to by all the cases as one of the chief results of the attainment of Nirvâna—the Cosmic Sense—came to J. W. W. un. mistakably, instantaneously.
h. The strict parallelism of this case with all the others given will be recognized by every careful reader.