Some years ago, when I was nineteen and living in the north of England, I knew a middle-aged man named Reuben who claimed to be visited by angels, to receive visions and auditions from God, to see and converse with the spirits of nature, and to be able to intuit the spiritual complaints of nearly everyone he met. He was a cheerful soul, with a vast and almost impossibly tangled beard of walnut brown through which he was forever running the fingers of his right hand, a few ghostly wisps of hair floating about the crown of his head, and eyes of positively gemlike blue. (Actually, his eyes were rather unsettling at times—they sometimes seemed to be lit from within—but there was never any menace in them.)
He once told me that as a very small child he had assumed that everyone was aware of the numinous presences that he saw everywhere, on a nearly daily basis. To him, a small anthropine figure dancing atop an open flower or a radiant angel standing beside a church door was as ordinary a sight as, well, an open flower or a church door. It was only when he was about seven, he said, after years of his parents’ anxiously admonishing him not to make up tales and to embarrass them with his nonsense, that he began to grasp that the world he saw about him was qualitatively different from that of most other persons; and when he was about twelve he began to appreciate how much more interesting and delightful than theirs his reality was.
When I knew him, he was studying for a master’s degree in the religious studies department of the University of Lancaster, where I was doing a year’s research principally on Cittamatra Buddhism. He hoped to write a dissertation on William Blake, with whom—for obvious reasons—he felt a close kinship. He was one of those gentle and slightly hapless eccentrics who are deeply necessary parts of the constituency of any university or college worth its charter, generally drifting about in programs that offer them temporary shelter but no real prospects of a career, working toward degrees they will probably never receive, but contributing some vital, genial, and largely indefinable benefit to everyone around them.
He worked, if that is the right word, in the university library, though as far as I could tell his only job was engaging in long conversations at the front desk with all of his friends (work he did not mind taking with him, after his shift, to the nearby coffee bar). Everyone who knew him was exceedingly fond of him, and I never heard anyone express any doubt that his visions and auditions from the other side were entirely authentic. There was an air of earnest innocence about him that made it all but impossible to distrust his word. He was not childlike, by any means—he actually had a very subtle and able philosophical mind—but he certainly gave one the impression that he was incapable of malice or deceit. Everyone enjoyed his company.
He did seem, moreover, to have some real talent for discerning the states of mind of his friends, and for diagnosing certain of their spiritual ills. I do not mean anything like an occult aptitude for reading minds, and I do not mean to imply that he was some sort of spirit-medium—there were no disembodied voices whispering other persons’ uncomfortable secrets into his ear or anything like that—but he did have a kind of sensitivity to the moods and problems of those around him that at times seemed almost uncanny.
Reuben was, I should also mention, quite devout. He had never had any cause, he said, to doubt the tenets of the Christian faith; and he clearly took deep joy in the Anglican hymnal, from which he was fond of singing snatches at odd moments. He told me that once or twice in his early years he had been challenged by persons of an Evangelical bent, who had sought to convince him that his view of reality was tainted with paganism or that he was in fact the prey of demons. He found their arguments unconvincing, however, and had developed a rather sophisticated theory (inspired in part by Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth) about terrestrial spiritual intelligences. To his mind, there were spirits abroad in most of nature, though perhaps not nearly as many as once there had been, who were to be counted among the more benign “powers” and “dominions” of the created order. Christians, he felt, had no cause to worry about them at all: For one thing, Paul assures us that Christ had subdued all the more recalcitrant spiritual agencies in the cosmos; for another, “They’re very affable for the most part, if you behave decently towards them.”
He also sometimes argued (partly inspired by the writings of Owen Barfield) that human consciousness may have changed rather drastically over the epochs, and that perhaps the very frame of nature has altered with it. He believed that at one time human beings had been much better able to perceive certain dimensions of reality that, with our modern mechanistic view of nature, we no longer can. Perhaps, he once opined to me, it all has something to do with the relative preponderance of the right and left hemispheres of the brains—though, as an enemy of all materialism, he was convinced that, if this was so, a change in our shared metaphysics had slowly altered the balance of the cerebral cortex, and not the reverse.
Whatever the case, he believed that in the past a doorway within us had been open in a way it generally is not now, and that the dream images and strange music and mystical poetry that came from another region of the soul had flowed into the conscious mind without much hindrance. Whatever that now-repressed capacity had been, however—whether a more influential right hemisphere or something else altogether—he was sure it was not a source of illusion but rather a window through which the light of reality had shone with greater clarity than through any other faculty within us. As far as he was concerned, he was simply one of those fortunate few in whom the causeway between the two sides of the self had not been tragically sealed off.
At any rate, the thing I want chiefly to emphasize about Reuben is that he was a remarkably happy man: harmless, kind, and always in good spirits. In fact, I do not think I have ever known anyone else who took such evident delight in the world. He told me he had felt himself surrounded at all times by friends, human and otherwise: A walk in the country for him was a visit to the companions of his childhood. He spoke of “creation” (he rarely used the word “nature,” it seems to me) as an essentially “amiable” reality if one approaches it correctly. He may have been one of the few truly happy souls I have known in my life.
Another friend of mine from those days, who now lives not far from Manchester and who had gotten back in touch with Reuben in recent years, called me last month. About half a decade back, it seems, Reuben came under the supervision of a physician who, alarmed by his stories of sprites and angels and the like, reported him as a person suffering serial psychotic episodes, possibly a danger to himself or others. This led by some elaborate process to mandated psychotherapy, including the administration of antipsychotic drugs, the late-modern equivalent of exorcism, I suppose. The therapy had the desired results: After a sufficient number of doses, Reuben lost the ability to commune with the presences that had been his close companions all his life. He did not cease to believe in their existence, but—as he told my friend—the “door had now been closed” between him and them. The Reuben my friend now saw was a sad, somewhat bitter, and rather listless man, who described himself as, above all else, deeply lonely. His health, moreover, had been deteriorating for some time.
At the end of last spring, Reuben contracted pneumonia and never quite recovered. He died in June, sixty-eight years of age. My friend attended the funeral at the church Reuben had been attending regularly for years (often, at Evensong, as the sole parishioner in attendance). There was a therapist at the funeral who had known Reuben for some time and who, in the course of lamenting Reuben’s death, remarked that he was at least glad that the psychiatrist in charge of the case had been able, in those last few years, to help Reuben get in touch with “reality.” There had been, he said, a marked improvement in Reuben’s state of mind under care, and there was some comfort to be taken from the knowledge that he had enjoyed a short period of stability and general sanity before the end.
Sometimes it is difficult to exaggerate how strange, barbaric, and superstitious an age ours really is.
David Bentley Hart is an editor at large for First Things. His most recent book is The Devil and Pierre Gernet.