Immanent Light... An Early Awakening as a Young Man
From where I stood, the grand old staircase of McAuliffe Hall extended in both directions. Its richly carved newel post of English oak was announced the landing, anchoring the steeply winding handrail just inches from my hand. The stairs aligned with the main hall of the sleeping quarters, centered under the roof's ridge. The twisted handrail of wood and iron plummeted in a tight spiral down through the tall spaces below. It also rose upward from my hand in the opposite direction, another three flights. I was midway. It was a tall tower for a residential structure, even one so grand in scale. The 'Tower Room', at the top of the stairs, was not assigned to any specific purpose and on occasion we gathered there to expand our minds with entheogens, or to play guitars to the ecstatic rhythms of the ancient heating system. It was a true 'Belvidere' designed to take advantage of the best views. The gabled dormer windows protruded north and south from the square hip-roof, high enough to see over the ridge of the main building. The tower offered an unobstructed view of Long Island Sound... one that was rare, spectacular, and privileged.
I grasped the old lacquered guardrail and leaned over, cautiously, gazing down through the diminishing turns of the winding staircase. It was a view not unlike the Bramante staircases at the Vatican in Italy. One he had designed, and the other that was named in his honor. His original design was also set within a tall square belvedere. The other more elaborate and popular design, had a continuous ornate guardrail. Both of the Bramante staircases had the unusual and unique feature of being double-stacked staircases, meaning that there were actually two sets of stairs, one above the other. They counter-spiraled opposite each other like the arms of a interstellar galaxy extended through space. This design allowed separate uninterrupted travel in both directions, one stair for ascending, the other for descending. Even though such an elaborate design was not required here, the visual and aesthetic impact was equally arresting. Beneath the wood and metal handrail, ornate sections of art-nouveau scrollwork swept by as if the dynamic forces of nature in alternating spiral patterns, curling one way then the other. This ribbon of twisting lace defined the empty space at the tower's core. The empty helical column at the center was illuminated by a single chandelier suspended from the sixth floor. Pewter sconces at intermediate landings filled in light at the shadowed corners. At the bottom of the spire, barely visible, was a cluster of twisted wrought iron balusters. They supported the steeply rising transition-wreath and radial volute seamlessly joined, that terminating the long heavy handrail. My heart had quickened in the swirling visual descent of vertical space, like falling through a whirling vortex in an ungrounded dream. But now finally, both heart and vision had come to rest on the flat horizontal surface of the first marble step so far below. Its leading edge curving slightly outward leading gracefully towards the center of the long foyer.
The foyer's center was marked by a small inlaid compass, a brass disc inscribed with the cardinal points. The date was also recorded, and together they situated the building in both time and Space. The Building faced true south, and because of its accurate reckoning, any shadow through a window or door, along with the correct time of day, could establish one's orientation. The square and rectangular stone tiles and wooden parquet floors within the overall right-angled floor plan, paralleled the Earth's global coordinate system, making it unlikely to get lost in the maze of rooms and halls, at least in relation to the exterior world. But it was here after first arriving that morning, while standing between the foyer's compass and the tall tower to the West, that I felt for the first time a disquieting sense of disorientation. The memory of the symbol flashed into my mind pulling me towards the tower, reminding me of why I had returned.
As I approached, taking that first uneasy step, I felt the surprisingly smooth surface of the stair’s starting tread, leaving behind the rough every-day world that I walked with a confident stride. Everything safe and familiar was falling away. The subtle radius of that first step with its delicate handrail, had reached out to me. My eyes traced the sensuous curves of the hand-worn railing winding up the spiraling staircase. It filled the emptiness of the towering space, like the silhouette of a beautiful woman turning slowly while letting her robe slip partly to her forearms. The stair case rose up through the tall foursquare space, the faint lingering scent of pipe tobacco still clinging to the plaster walls from days before, settling onto the entablature of raised panels with their projecting cornice and intricate details repeating just below the bed moulding above the tall frieze and articulated architrave.
I too rose, but at such an incline I was forced to witness every step I took, etching into my memory each deliberate act of will, climbing the forbidden cavernous tower where the sacred men of God descended each morning back-lit by the shifting diffused colors of a morning sun. Soft hues of light filtered down from the elevated panes of stained glass windows perched high above in the tiny shed-dormered 'squints'. It was as if the priests arrived each day on rays of light dispatched from the Sun. At night they would ascend again, this time into the sparkling dark scrim at the end of each day after their earthly obligations were dispensed saving souls and reaffirming heaven’s purpose. A cycle of life, as regular as the passing of each day, and as inevitable as each starlit night.
As I had reached the third landing, I paused for a breath to strengthen my courage. I moved forward just a couple of steps, stopped and turned facing a shallow alcove between the tower and the massive main hip roof. It was a transition space with a narrow recessed window deeply splayed through the thick outer stone wall. The uncirculated air smelled musty and old like the stacks of random books lining each side, interspersed with folders and clipped papers piled high seeking support against the paint-chipped walls. The cluttered floor between the opposing stacks had an intimate feeling like the space between pillows after a close embrace with a passionate lover, hair disheveled in turns and tangles. These were the vestiges of forgotten passions deep and complex, an exchange of ideas across time and space conceived in timeless moments. It was here somewhere, among these unknown texts of sacred philosophies and intellectual devotions, amid the de-contextualized worlds of minds written onto unbound pages and these rarely read books… that I could feel it, somewhere.
I had spotted its cover just the other day, while returning from a solemn meeting with the school’s academic dean, along with my advisor, Father Lewis Daniels. I was failing Latin, and possibly Biology, even though I had invented and built a fully operable projecting-microscope out of junk lenses and broken gears, so that the whole class could see, all at one time up on the laboratory's walls, the glorious orgy of paramecium and amoebas flagellating across a drop of pond water on an illuminated glass slide. They should have given me an award! But aside from trying to share my deeper visions, that perhaps only I found curiously meaningful and exciting, I practiced a posture of keeping a low profile. I did not want to draw the attention of those who could alter my fate. My father would put me to hard labor on his construction crews pouring concrete and raking rocks.
This year...life was great! I was at this fancy school and had a cute girlfriend with a '68 Fiat convertible sports-car. I was in heaven, man!.... and living the good life! But at this moment, I wasn’t focused on material fortunes. I certainly didn't care about languages no-one spoke, or even single-celled microscopic creatures invisible to normal sight. For what I had seen in that pile of books was infinitely more exciting, mysterious, and primordial... like an occult alchemical symbol promising hidden powers. A secret as compelling as the longings whispered across a pillow, or the desire of a shared orgasmic love lasting for eternity. I had not been able to stop thinking about the symbol for days. The next several nights I had dreamt about it, hovering in my dream-scape, like a sacred fire burning away the sky revealing the greatest of all the universe's secrets!
Father Dan was leaving the campus soon to become head of Jesuit training in Boston. He sported one of his many burlwood pipes stuffed with exotic Latakian tobacco that smelled like old Persian rugs smoldering along the Baltic seacoast. A fragrance, if you could call it that, which for some reason I found comforting and reassuring. It’s smokey density swirled earthbound towards the more familiar floors amid the student low-lands. And despite his pending obligations, that must have weighed heavily, he was taking the time to kindly escort me back from my own personal inquisition, advising me not to worry, that "there were always higher forces at work". And at that moment, as we approached the stairs and I glanced down to find the landing's edge, I saw it.... the symbol.... off to the side just before the step.
Even as we passed it, I instinctively sensed that this book was different from all the others. It wasn't old or particularly distinguished, not thick or leather bound, no etched titles or gilded edges. I later wondered, how odd, that it wasn’t the title or author's name that had caught my attention, just a simple enigmatic symbol, overarching the lesser images on the cover. It seemed familiar and continued to tug at my memory. It was like an arch over a round top window, or the sweep of the Milky Way galaxy on a clear night, hauntingly familiar as if etched into my soul. Perhaps, I mused, it recalled a previous incarnation from a past lifetime or even more incredibly, a future time yet to be!
But now, days later, I stood quietly alone, quavering at the center of the alcove just before the stair's upper landing where I had first spied it, trying not to knock into the stacks or to push anything over. I could feel my heart racing again, the heat rising in my face. If only I could escape from whatever power this symbol had over me, pulling at my awareness. This thing that had ensnared me, like a wild beast irreversibly captured by some unknown force. And then, as I scanned the pile on the right, about two thirds of the way up, I spotted it. Its spine was diagonal to the wall and pulled partially out so that only the bottom half of the book was exposed... just as I had seen it...but a few days before.
As I looked at it now it seemed less important, just a forgotten book left by an itinerant seminarian recently reassigned. This could just as easily have been any other ordinary paperback from a corner drugstore. I considered taking it... reasoning with myself... Who would miss it? The idea was more troubling because of where it was, up here, where the priests slept, more than anything else. There was no issue of ownership or intrinsic value. After all, this was just a common space that collected disavowed possessions belonging to no-one... and to everyone. And except for the symbol on the cover, that somehow still commanded my instant attention, I would have just let it be for someone else to discover and ponder. But it was calling to me as if my name were on it. I gazed at the cover in deeper reverie, I studied the symbol more closely, the symmetrical serifs to either side, the curve of the enlarged font rising and arching, varying in thickness and width over the sprouting leaf. I imagined the motion of the hand that might have brushed it's arc...like the path of the sun at Equinox, or the moon when they are but opposite sides of the same turning.
I glanced over to the top of the staircase, then down into the better lit public spaces below, listening for any approaching footsteps. On the same floor where I stood, where the priests slept I peered into the dark diminishing depths of the dormitory corridor. All the doors were closed to each other, the hall receding into the vanishing distance like an empty tunnel of mirrors...nothing.
And so, in the solemn silence of the symbol's persistent evocation, I took it. Unnoticed as a dear leaving the forest's edge, holding it discretely under my jacket close to my heart beneath the proud emblem of this noble school, the Stag. I took a step into the center of the hall, where I had stood several days earlier with Father Dan reassuringly at my side. I exhaled and breathed deeply quieting myself, and without heal nor toe walked stoically towards that sturdy newel post, remembering Father Dan's advice. I steadied myself against his words and the newel post's unmoving strength, as if he were still here beside me. I paused just long enough to gain my balance and then, without stopping, I descended the endlessly turning steps of that spiring staircase until at last, I was home-safe on the main floor of McAuliffe Hall, exactly where I was supposed to be.
I could hear spring's earlier birds twittering outside through the open doors. The robins and chickadees called in the mid-morning light from the garden wall. I glanced at the familiar wall-hung pewter sconces with their steeple-top finials flanking the entry doors. Its heavy steel-framed perimeter channels were glazed with leaded glass like that of a church. The grille patterns above, were the same as those below, with a waist-height push-bar across each door connecting the horizontal bronze bar to the vertical floor-to-transom cremone bolts. The "signum crucis" implied in the very structure of the door's opening and closing hardware. I had passed through these doors a thousand times on my way to class, and was just now for the first time noticing the symbolic correspondence. But this time, as I stepped over the stone threshold, worn in the middle from decades of students scuffling across, the lanterns unexpectedly flickered as if someone was working on the wiring. I tried not to place any significance on the coincidence and instead, once outside, braced myself to pull the weighty slow-swinging doors toward me into a securely closed position. I stood facing the narrow vertical astragal, a star-shaped metallic lip that lapped one door's edge over the other. As I eyed the tall sliver of interior space quickly disappearing between them, the hardware rattled and the astragal's metal interlocked. I was centered on the door, centered between the stone pillars of the North facade, and centered on the building's overall architectural axis. An imaginary line that established the building's primary symmetry and its relation to the South lawn, the East Garden, and all of the surrounding landscape.
My awareness moved from that one dimensional axis, to the entry's perfect stone arch above me. I could see that it's arc also centered on the door's threshold at the center. Again my consciousness expanded outward from that threshold point. I now sensed the sun's path high above me as if it were tied to the same origin point. At that moment the sun cleared the treetops and brilliant sunlight broke out across the walled courtyard. The intense light reflected off the car's windshield, sweeping across the granular surface of the white quartz-pebbled courtyard, becoming like a mirror to the sun's surface. The gravel stones shone and sparkled as if glowing from within, each with its own internal source of light spread out like a sea of burning particles roiling against each other. I was frozen for a moment in fear, Prometheus with his treasure, alone in a bed of gravel all aflame. I felt a similar fire ignite in my heart, pulsing in synchrony with the luminous field upon which I stood, burning in appearance, yet with no sensible heat. I walked quickly toward the East side of the courtyard over the glowing ground to where, just twenty minutes before, I had parked. I opened the car door wide and in the rebound of its flexing hinges pulled it quickly behind me. I lifted my feet and dropped safely down into the driver's leathery bucket seat. I had finally disengaged myself from that electrifying fire. I pulled the canvas top closed, all the way over and latched it down tight. In the small security of that shaded space, I tried to gather my thoughts. What on earth had just happened? What had I seen? What had I felt?!
I pulled the book out from under my jacket holding it reverently in my shaking hands. I studied the cover that had become as familiar to me now as my own image. And in that extended time of contemplation, after the vision of the burning ground, I slowly beheld the meaning of that powerful symbol. I suspected that this was how the author might have first sensed it as well, through the limited gaze of human eyes looking into a blazing, over-arching and eternally transforming infinite fiery mind that he had but touched...to which, we are all part of and ultimately called. In so doing, he had become transfixed as I had, with the awesome metamorphic energies that I now knew were intrinsically woven throughout all living things and within all physical phenomenon. I was just the embodiment of those "sacred energies" transmitting its numinousity through a single human life. And like Teilhard, I was but a passing flame in a sacred book, that was, and would forever change, my life.
As I drove off anxious to begin reading.... the luminous world dimmed to normal.