THE SPIRAL WAY
Have you ever been up a spiral staircase? Of course you have! — though it is really a helix, not a spiral. It goes round and round, and up and up. The spiral staircase is a very ancient architectural device; Abram probably used one in Ur of the Chaldees. They are to be found in all the old castles: you enter through a tiny door in pitch darkness, and go round and round till you come out on top. The advantage of this type of stairway is that it occupies very little room. It does not require a frame, and it can be built up on itself, as high as it is needed.
The most remarkable circular staircase I have ever seen was in a lighthouse on the Norfolk coast. It was like a great empty pepper pot. The steps were built against the inner wall in circles getting smaller and smaller towards the top. At first we didn't seem to be making much headway, just going round and round. We started on the land side, then we were on the sea side, then back again on the land side; but, how much higher we were than when we began! We couldn't have jumped that height, and we had no wings. The only way to make it was to press forward up the gentle slope and go all round and back again.
Life is a spiral stairway reaching from earth to heaven. Each time another year comes round we complete another circle. (Yes, and the circles seem to become smaller and smaller the higher up we get! It's a sign of old age setting in.) You can't climb straight up to heaven, nor can you fly there. The only way is to continue straight in front of you, meeting each day's problems as they come, doing your job as well as you can, learning more about other people and trying to make them happy; also learning more about God and trying to please Him. Then, though you may seem to be back again where you were, you will actually be quite a big stage nearer heaven.
Upward progress does not depend upon spectacular developments. Most of us live fairly humdrum lives, and don't seem to be getting anywhere in particular. Perhaps we envy the TV personalities, or people who make headlines in the newspaper; they seem to be achieving something. Yet, if you could read their thoughts, you would probably find they also were wondering, "Where are we going? What is the use of it all? What is life's purpose?"
In the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg we are given a clear, positive and practical answer to this age-old question as to the ultimate goal of life. The Lord's grand purpose in creation was to form a heaven of angels from the human race. We have been placed here in order that we may develop an angelic disposition which will fit us eventually for life in heaven. This world is a kind of College for Angelhood. We are experimenting here in order to determine the kind of life we shall live after death. Death does not produce any radical break in the continuous flow of man's existence. The life of heaven closely resembles life here on earth, otherwise the earth-life would not be very useful or suitable as a preparation for it! For example, under the old idea that the angels occupy themselves to eternity playing harps, we should have to take more seriously the question of learning to play the harp while here on earth. Even the organ or flute would be a waste of effort: it would have to be the harp! Churches would raise funds to provide every member with a harp, and there would be practice periods every Sunday. But no! Swedenborg reports, from his thirty years' experience of life in the other world, that the playing of harps is no more general there than it is here, and he personally got along all right without that particular skill! Only two basic skills are necessary in the future life (as, indeed, in this life also): firstly, to be able to live happily with other people; and secondly, to be able to live happily with God. In hell, where the drop-outs go, everyone acts entirely from love of self, seeking his own advantage in everything, trying to down everyone else; whereas in heaven (for which we are supposed to be preparing ourselves here on earth) everyone is motivated solely by love to the neighbour and love to the Lord.
To live in heaven should be our goal: what we should be working towards, and training ourselves for, during every moment of every day. We must master the procedure of being content and happy by giving ourselves out to others. Selfishness has to be vanquished and abandoned. To qualify for heaven we have to develop a heavenly nature in the here-and-now. That is what this earth-school has been established for. The Lord is the Head Master and he has the curriculum in hand, perfectly adapted to our needs. Our part is simply to do honestly and well each little lesson he sets before us, as we come to it.
Character is formed from thousands of choices, each perhaps negligible in itself. Habits strong enough to carry us to heaven or hell are established by continual, deliberate repetition of insignificant patterns of thought and will, over a period of time. Outstanding crises may hurry things up, but they are not essential to the procedure. The citadel of character is built of very small bricks, with only an occasional large block, these bricks being moulded during the innumerable contacts and reactions of ordinary home and business routine.
If you doubt whether trivialities will get you so far, consider the oak tree. Every year, sap goes up the trunk in spring, and comes down again in the autumn. There is an annual drudgery of buds, leaves, acorns, with nothing to show for it. But wait! Some of that sap is transformed into a thin film of wood. Year by year minute layers of new substance are deposited under the bark, and so the tree grows. Saw the trunk across, and you can count the number of years the tree has lived by the rings in the wood. The oak wood we so much prize, the iron-hard oak of which our fighting ships were made in days gone by, the beautiful material used by the mediaeval carver to decorate our great cathedrals — it is produced by the sum total of all those uneventful years' labour in the forest: summer and winter, cold and heat, night and day. Wood can be created in no other way known to man or God.
Here I must pause, however, to point out that actions in themselves are not formative; they neither help nor hinder our spiritual growth. It is the motive behind the action which forms our character. A "good" action performed from a selfish or self-glorifying motive, may actually have a bad effect upon the doer, though being useful to someone else. Martha was doubtless making a delicious meal for Jesus, but her "much serving" failed to benefit her because she was resentful of Mary's non-cooperation. I am appalled by the thought of the immense amount of wasted effort expended by every one of us in our industrialized culture, dashing back and forth on the same strip of our spiral stairway, going down just as likely as going up, being of "use." On the other hand, someone in another culture (say, in Africa or India or South America) who seems to be just sitting around doing nothing — someone we tend to scorn for being lazy and ineffectual — may in fact be making more progress upwards than we ourselves, if he does what he does do from a more spiritual motivation. Of course we cannot judge; but the end result will show clearly after death. Think of all the things that made you so busy yesterday, or any other day. Did you benefit spiritually from them? Someone else benefited, probably, but did you? If not, they were a sheer waste of time and energy as far as you were concerned. They were noticed only by the Divine Schoolmaster to the extent to which they caused you to go up, or down, the spiral staircase.
And the wonderful thing is that almost anything you do CAN benefit you, if you do it from an unselfish motivation, or react to it aright. You have just as much opportunity to form an angelic character in the framework of your life as did the saints and martyrs in theirs. "The daily round, the common task, will furnish all we need to ask." Dross is placed before us, and, with the magic wand of a cheerful, outgoing spirit, and a heart full of praise to the Lord, we can turn it into gold. It is really quite easy; there is nothing esoteric about it. Each step is well within our reach as we come to it. Unfortunately, of course, it is equally easy to go in the opposite direction! Little slips of character, little annoyances and resentments, little bits of boastful self-satisfaction and complacent scorn of others, can produce evil habits which become structured into our souls. How hard it is to get rid of them when once we have formed them! It is never impossible; while we live there is always the possibility of change for the better, but it becomes increasingly difficult as the years pass.
How about doing some stock-taking now, while you are thinking of it? Normally it is unhealthy to try to keep check of one's spiritual progress — better just press forward, meeting each situation as it presents itself. But, once or twice a year, it is good to take a deep-down look at oneself, to see how one is getting on. Ask yourself: "Am I going in the right direction? Am I more mature spiritually than I was a year ago? Less self-centred, kinder, gentler, less touchy? Are my bad habits weaker than they were, and my good habits stronger? How is my prayer-life developing? Am I closer to my heavenly Father?" If you do not come out well in this self-examination, the matter is serious indeed, and you should make a determined effort at once to get your direction right — up the stairway instead of down.
Make big improvements in your life if you can; but attend also to the little things. It is our little everyday choices and attitudes that form us into angels of heaven or devils of hell. Make up your mind and determine that in future you will do at least one thing every day from the pure unselfish motive of love to the Lord and the neighbour. Then your life, instead of being a treadmill or a merry-go-round, will become a spiral stairway mounting upwards to the sky.
I spoke at the beginning of a lighthouse, but said nothing of the light at the top to which the stairway gives access. Jacob dreamed a dream at Bethel (Genesis 28:10-17) and saw a ladder, or stairway, set up on earth, its top reaching heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending. Above it stood the Lord Himself who is the Light of the world. May he bless you and guide you in all your ways, so that as days and weeks and months pass by you will ascend that stairway and draw nearer to him, and finally step out on top into the Light of Heaven.