Stratford and Leonie Caldecott

As a tribute to our friend Stratford Caldecott–Catholic scholar, intellectual, husband, father, grandfather and comic book aficionado…I publish here Strat’s conversion story which was first published by Gracewing in my first book, the best selling  volume of conversion stories, The Path to Rome – Modern Journeys to the Catholic Church.

Gnosis and Grace

Contemporary Paganism and the Search for Truth

Stratford Caldecott

I was not baptized as a child, my agnostic father having prevailed upon my mother to let the children decide their own religious fate when old enough to do so. My parents were South African intellectuals, who left their country in 1951 after years of working against apartheid. It was in London that I was born and brought up, in a comfortable, loving home flooded with all the cultural influences of the 1960s. The house was full of books, my father being a publisher (editor of the Reader’s Union Book Club, and later joint chief editor at Penguin, and founder of Wildwood House), and I devoured them. My favourites were fantasy novels and science fiction, then popular science, and eventually mysticism.

As long as I can remember I have had a sense that there is a God. I associate my religious instinct largely with dreams, of which I remember many from my childhood: dreams that seemed to be more than dreams, like other lives and other worlds within this one, bearing revelations that can never fully be expressed in words. As a child, I was sickly and bedridden a lot of the time, developing a particularly close relationship with my mother. We talked for hours about the meaning of life and suchlike. And then, when I was fourteen, I finally discovered the ‘secret of the universe’ – or so I put it to myself. This was a philosophical insight. I had been pondering whether the world is, as the materialists claim, mere matter and energy. Suddenly I realized that the very consciousness of the question, my very awareness itself ­– to say nothing of the substance of my dreams – was in itself non-material.

It is hard to convey the force with which this insight impacted upon my life, or the horizons it opened up for me. At around the same time I had a similar insight concerning time. I realized that whether or not the past existed for us any more, it must be every bit as real as the present. No doubt the same applies to the future, which is as yet undetermined (it will be determined, in part, by the decisions we are now making). Thus there must be a dimension beyond time, and in this a unity enfolding all things: matter, consciousness and time. Here I felt I had at last ‘located’ the Presence whose existence I had long suspected. I filled endless notebooks with pencilled argument and ideas, these reflections evoking in me a series of mystical experiences that were to cease a few years later, in the very moment I first told another soul about them, for all the world as though I was being punished for violating a secret.

I became fascinated by arguments for the existence of God. In particular, I pondered how to prove God to those who have not experienced that gift of contact – who had not smelt that perfume from the hidden garden. Obviously one cannot prove God by a syllogism. Nevertheless it seemed that there must be ways of opening up the mind to that dimension. Simply by daring to think, do we not posit a world that makes sense to us, that we can understand better by investigation and reflection? Should we not assume that the world in fact makes the maximum possible sense? I was struck by a sentence from a science-fiction novel by Alfred Bester, ‘Somewhere there is something worthy of belief.’ Now that seemed to be the right place to start. You won’t find it unless you believe it is out there, somewhere. And surely we all worship something: namely whatever we put in first place in our lives. The measure of our humanity is fixed by whatever it is we worship. Let us by all means ‘worship’ with every breath the noblest reality that might exist, and act as though it were as real as the things we saw with our eyes. In this way I dimly sensed that religious faith, since it concerns the invisible, cannot be merely passive, but must in some way a creative act, an act of will.

At the time I was still not much interested in Christianity. The empty formalism of public school prayers had never seemed to have much to do with anything important. As an adolescent, my reading proceeded by way of a series of stepping stones – often books that came into the house because my father was publishing them. Colin Wilson, Alan Watts, various Zen masters, Gurdjieff, Idries Shah … My father had been drawn into the whole hippy movement of the late sixties. He published the works of Carlos Casteneda, and commissioned a then-unknown physicist called Fritjof Capra to write a bestseller called The Tao of Physics, on the strength of his publisher’s instinct and a conversation overheard at a cocktail party. Meanwhile I fell in love with America through its comic books, which I collected assiduously from the local newsagents, and later from the specialist stores. Between school and university I actually went to America, earning money as a ‘mother’s help’ with a wonderful family in New England and then exploring the continent by Greyhound bus.

By the end of my American year, when I went up to Oxford with a scholarship to read philosophy and psychology, I was half way to becoming a true ‘esotourist’. That is to say, I was in search of ‘esoteric’ spiritual wisdom, and I sought it through a succession of superficial engagements – mainly intellectual or imaginative – with a range of gurus and teachers from all traditions and none. Steiner, Suzuki, Teilhard … I moved from one to the other, catching in each a glimpse of something true, trying to suck the nourishment out of them, to consume and then move on. But all the time my head and my heart were drifting further and further apart. At Oxford I grew so frustrated on a thin diet of analytic philosophy and experimental psychology that I became unable to study, even sometimes to speak. I remember walking out of a tutorial to sit in the University Parks, after I had found myself reading the same sentence in my essay to my tutor over and over again. In the final exams, I deliberately chose the questions I had not prepared for, in order to be able to rouse enough interest in myself to answer them. I was lucky to come away with a decent second. But I had in any case no intention of continuing with another degree. Instead, I decided to follow in my father’s footsteps, and try to become a publisher. Meanwhile, at Oxford I had fallen in love at first sight with a fellow student, Léonie Richards, and we were soon to marry. Here was the event that would truly change my life. From outside the narrow circle of my mental agitation, another person had reached into the centre and the barriers of my heart were down. I suppose I felt a bit like Adam: ‘This at last is flesh of my flesh … ’

At Oxford, I was totally unconscious of the Catholic Church, but uncomfortably aware of the Evangelical Christians, known in the College as ‘the God Squad’; young enthusiasts who invited all and sundry to listen to their guitars and tapes of public exorcisms. My own private religious interests began more and more to focus on Sufism (the mystical side of Islam), and especially on the medieval writers Ibn Arabi and Rumi, in whom passionate love-poetry was combined with metaphysical speculation broadly in the Platonic tradition. The Sufis are thought to have had an important influence on the troubadours, on Dante, perhaps even directly on St Francis. I became enamoured with some of their modern interpreters ­– Ananda Coomaraswamy, René Guenon and Frithjof Schuon. This latter taught ‘the transcendental unity of religions’ in such a sophisticated way that it impressed even a Christian such as T. S. Eliot.

Unlike many proponents of interfaith dialogue, Schuon was quite unembarrassed by the contradictory teachings of the world religions, but saw each as constituting a different, necessary dialect or language within which the one Truth expressed itself. The ‘apparent antinomies are like differences of language or symbol; contradictions are in human receptacles, not in God; the diversity in the world is a function of its remoteness from the divine Principle.’ Nature is a revelation to human consciousness in general, and everything that befalls a person during his or her life is a private revelation to that individual; each religion is a revelation of the same Truth to a human collectivity – it incarnates saving Truth in the form of a cultural universe. Just as there is no real contradiction when consciousness says ‘I’ in each person, so there is none when God says ‘I’ in each religion. The world has many centres. Each is genuinely a centre, but not the Centre. Each is absolute, but only ‘relatively’ absolute.

The power of Schuon’s writing has been attested by many others, and I have known several who, like me, took years to fight free of its spell. For some it took until the 1990s, when the rumours of his alleged fascination with young naked Amerindians convinced me that as a man he was less incorruptible than his intellect. Whatever the truth of these allegations, twenty years earlier the telltale marks of a kind of mentis superbia, an intellectual arrogance, were evident in his work. At around the same time, I became acquainted with followers of G. I. Gurdjieff, who demonstrated a similar Luciferian arrogance, which I began to recognize as one of the commonest forms of spiritual temptation, becoming stronger not weaker the higher one goes up the scale of intelligence.

Yet from Schuon and his school I felt I had learned many things of value, and perhaps one in particular. Defenders of Tradition and of traditions, they adamantly opposed the common tendency in ‘New Age’ circles to merge all religions together, or to try to transcend them without practising a particular religion. There may be many ways up the mountain of truth, but we get there by climbing, not flying. This matched my own experience. It is not enough to know the truth in the abstract. We have to become one with it, be transformed by it, and be lifted by it beyond our limitations. What I realized, by the end of my time at Oxford, therefore, was that I needed a religious tradition. But which one should it be? Continue Reading