The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 23 - The Turning Point

Further advancement into knowledge of the soul had to come to Swedenborg through the field of intuition. He had taught and acknowledged that intuitive experience - such as comes from within, from the soul itself, an unsought endowment of God - cannot exist with impurities of the ego. Without these obstructions the soul, with its information and wisdom, flows in freely and gladly; with them, its way is barred. In the experiences which he was about to undergo his theory was to be demonstrated.

These were years of crisis in Swedenborg's life, years that marked a great charge in his entire outlook on his work. The crisis set in while he was working on The Animal Kingdom in Holland and continued until after he had published his Worship and Love of God in London. When it came to an end Swedenborg had completely relinquished anatomical studies and was devoting himself exclusively to the study of the Bible. The change involved nothing less than the surrender of his own understanding and the submitting of his rationality to a power, that was supra-rational.

We should have scanty information about the struggle that went on in Swedenborg's mind during this period were it not for a remarkable manuscript that lay hidden until about a hundred years ago when it turned up among the papers of an old professor. It is a pocket-sized notebook, bound in parchment with folds on each side, containing sixty-nine leaves of closely written entries, largely in Swedish. It begins like an itinerary but is mostly Swedenborg's record of his dreams during the year 1744 and has been given the title The Journal of Dreams.[273] As these notes were obviously intended for no eyes than the writer's own, they are often sharply abbreviated and hard to decipher.

In general, the dreams depict the grim struggle in Swedenborg's mind, torn between his reliance on scientific methods, the habits of a lifetime, on the one hand, and an attention to spiritual sensations that were knocking on his consciousness but could not enter until he was willing to subordinate his. understanding to the inner guidance. They describe the mental' and emotional states of a mind becoming disentangled from the sensations of the body and from dependence upon reasoning, and gradually relying on the conscious reception of light through the soul - a separation that resulted; for Swedenborg, in clearness of thought and utter compliance to inner leading. Mental images were thereby dissociated from their physical counterparts, or usual meanings, and gradually made subservient to the higher faculties, so that those faculties could use the images of the mind as symbols, to represent immaterial and spiritual things. Immaterial things thus appeared to him in dreams under symbolic shapes, and when he reflected upon the meanings of the symbols the interpretation of the dream became clear to him. For example, his gross thoughts were represented to him in a dream as heaps of rags. His impurities were represented as vermin which had to be picked out. He saw himself living in an untidy but in which he had invited The Highest to visit him, and he thought that he ought to be punished for his presumption. The marching of soldiers past his window was a sign that he was to be protected from harm:

He notes changes in his personality, and is surprised at the removal of formerly dominant sexual desires. He wonders at the complete absence of all desire to work for his own honor and notes the difficulty of working on science when deprived of this motive. The Prolog to the first volume of The Animal Kingdom, which he wrote about this time, reflects the radical change of outlook, for it states that what urges and animates him is nothing but the desire to disperse the clouds of ignorance and to open a path to faith. How different is this motive from the one described in his memorial to the Board of Mines of the previous year, where he states that he is driven by patriotic fervor and ambition!

The struggle for this new outlook, recorded in his Journal of Dreams, Swedenborg later looked upon as part of his preparation for becoming an instrument of revelation. A more intimate account of a soul laid bare can scarcely be imagined, and these pages should be read only with sympathy and understanding. Here is nothing between a man's conscience and his God, and the man himself regarded it as a marvelous privilege to experience these dreams.

All his life had been centered intensely on scientific studies and it was terribly difficult for him to give up these pursuits. He felt an aversion amounting at times to rebellion and violent opposition to "the Spirit." At such times what he wrote was mere nonsense, he says, lacking life and connection. In one dream he interpreted a load too heavy for his horse to bear, whereof it died, as referring to his remaining work on anatomy. This he took as a warning against making his treatise too lengthy, and it foreshadowed his final break with all purely worldly studies.

Such states of depression alternated with states of the most exalted delight. He dreamed of going astray in the dark and then of the path becoming bright again and clear. He fell to weeping on account of his unworthiness, and the melody and words of a familiar hymn kept coming to mind:

Jesus is my friend, the best one,
   Never has His equal been.
Shall then I, like most, forsake Him?
   Shall I, too, abandon Him?
No one has the power to sever
   Me from His most tender love,
One with His, my will, forever
   Here below, as there above.[274]

"It seems to me that buds have opened, green ones!" he notes. It was shortly after this that he experienced his first state of ecstatic consciousness.

It was Easter, and Swedenborg had partaken of the Lord's supper. In the evening his mind was beset with temptations. Inner contentment alternated with outer sadness. He dreamed of meeting an acquaintance who tried in vain to induce him to join his company. He took this to mean indulgence, riches, vanity. An indescribable state of heavenly bliss succeeded this state of temptation, with full consciousness of God's love and the willingness to give up his own life for Him.

I had in my mind and body the feeling of an indescribable delight, so that had it been in any higher degree the whole body would have been, as it were, dissolved in pure joy. In a word, I was in heaven and heard speech which no human tongue can utter, with the life that is there, with the glory and inmost delight that flow from it . . . [278]

The day after this occurrence, April 6, 1744, he traveled from The Hague to Delft, wrapped the whole time in profound spiritual meditations graciously given. That night in Delft he experienced the climactic event of his life.

He was reading, in the evening, about God's miracles wrought through Moses, and it seemed as if something of self-intelligence mingled in with the reading. He was unable to have the strong faith that was appropriate. He believed, and yet he did not believe. Perplexing questions intruded, such as: Why did God, who is omnipotent, make use of the wind to collect the locusts? Why did he, harden Pharaoh's heart instead of working immediately? He blamed the Tempter, however, and smiled at his wiles. He looked at the fire and said to himself' that he might as well deny the existence of that, too, because the external senses were more fallacious than God's Own Words, for He is Truth Itself. This was the reason, he thought, why the angels and God revealed themselves to shepherds and not to a philosopher.

He went to bed at ten o'clock. Half an hour later he heard a roaring noise as of many winds rushing together, and was immediately seized with' a powerful trembling from head to foot, and he felt the presence of something "indescribably holy" which shook him and threw him upon his face. He wondered what it meant, and found himself exclaiming: "Oh, Almighty Jesus Christ! Thou who of Thy great mercy deignest to come to so great a sinner, make me worthy of this grace!" He kept his hands folded and prayed, and then there came forth a hand which strongly pressed his hands. He was lying in His bosom and beheld Him face to face. "It was a countenance of a holy mien, and all was such as cannot be described ... His countenance was such, too, while He lived on earth. He spoke to me and asked me if I had a bill of health.[ Bill of health (sundhetsbetyg) is a certificate from the proper authorities as to the state of health of a ship's company, at the time of her leaving port. (Webster.)] I answered, `Lord, Thou knowest it better than I.' `Well, then do,' He said . . . " This Swedenborg interpreted as meaning "Love Me truly," or "Do what thou hast promised," and he adds: "Oh, God, impart to me the grace for this! I found that it was not within my power. I awoke with trembling."

In a condition neither sleeping nor waking, he reflected upon what had occurred. "What may this be? Is it Christ, the Son of God, whom I have seen?" It would be a sin to doubt it. Yet we are commanded to try the spirits. He reflected on how he had been purified and prepared for it, how he was thrown upon his face, and how the words of his prayer were put into his mouth. "So I perceived," he concludes, "that it was the Son of God Himself who descended with such a sound of roaring and who threw me to the ground involuntarily and made the prayer, and so I said, `It was Jesus Himself!' I then prayed for grace and love, since the work is of Jesus Christ and not my own ... Every now and then I burst into tears, not of sorrow but of inmost joy, that Our Lord has been willing to show such great grace to so unworthy a sinner."[276]

The thought occurred to Swedenborg that there might be those who would take him for a holy man and not only venerate him as such but even adore him as a saint. This would be an enormous sin. Earnestly he entreated the Lord that he might have no part in so great a sin. Christ alone is to be adored. He himself was unworthy more than others, and his sins were greater than those of others, coming from a deeper source. "This much have I now learned, in regard to what is spiritual, that there' is nothing for it but to humble oneself : . . the Holy Spirit taught me this but I, in my stupid understanding, had neglected humility, which is the foundation of everything."[277]

On the twenty-fifth of April he spent an enjoyable day with a friend, Meinheer Hinrich Posch, in Amsterdam. "I was in the company of all my former associates as before," he declared, "and no one could in the least perceive any change in me. This was of God's grace. . . But I dared not tell of the great grace that had been shown me. For I knew that this could serve no other purpose than to make people think this or that about me, each according to his mind, for or against it."[278]

He notes that the love of self constantly intruded, and cites as an instance of his pride that when anyone did not show him the proper respect he always thought, "If you only knew what grace I am enjoying you would act. differently!" He prayed to God for forgiveness for this and wished that others might enjoy the same grace, and adds: "Perhaps they do possess it, or will."[279]

He once heard someone asking his neighbor at table Whether a man who had an abundance of money could ever be sad? He smiled to himself. If the question had been addressed to him he would have replied that a person who possesses everything in abundance can be exposed to an even deeper kind of sadness, that of the mind and soul.

I can testify to this so much the more as by the grace of God there has been bestowed upon me in abundance everything that I require in respect to temporal things. I am able to live richly on my income alone, and I can carry out whatever I have in mind and still have a surplus of revenue, and so I can testify that the sorrow or melancholy which comes from a lack of the necessities of life is of a lesser degree and merely of the body and does not equal the other kind . . . [280]

Passing a bookshop he was struck with the thought that his work would have more effect than that of others.

But I checked myself at once with the thought that one person serves another and that Our Lord has many thousand ways of preparing everyone, so every book must be left to its own merit . . . Nevertheless pride at once was bound to assert itself. May God control it, for the power is in his hands! ... God grant me humility, so that I may see my frailty, impurity and unworthiness![281]

Once he failed to return the greeting of an acquaintance at table `and for this tardiness the man became offended and spoke harshly. Wanting to excuse himself, Swedenborg finally managed to say that he is often in deep thought and does not see when someone greets him, passing, his friends on the street without noticing them. He appealed to an acquaintance who was present to bear witness to this, who said that it was so. "No one is more anxious` than I to be polite' and humble." [282]

He notes how strong is his leaning towards anatomical speculations and that he would much rather be studying philosophical subjects than spiritual ones. Not only does he like being in worldly society, but he even likes to boast about his work. He was confronted with the terrifying danger that he might be lured away from working solely for the love of God. This would be spiritual whoredom, into which spirits were continually trying to seduce him. But when the love of God is put in the first place, no other love for one's work is possible. A man's own understanding must first be completely abolished and this is God's work, not man's. He spent the day in prayer and fasting and in reading the Bible. He acknowledged that he was impure from head to foot, and pleaded for the mercy of Jesus Christ. At last he felt it was given him to receive faith without the admixture of his own reason. Early in the morning he had a waking vision of a glorious circle representing infinite love, a love which diffused his mortal body with extreme delight:

. . . Then in the spirit I perceived that that which proceeds from the center itself, which is love, is the Holy Spirit . . . When a person is in such a state as not to possess a love that centers upon self, but upon the common good . . . for the sake of Christ, who is love itself and the center-then he is in the right state. Christ is the ultimate end. All other things are mediating ends leading directly to Him.

So finally, after many bitter temptations, Swedenborg felt certain that Jesus had helped him to win the battle, and that the object of his studies would be attained.

I do not wish to be mine own. I am certain and believe that Thou, O God, wilt let me be thine all the days of my life, and that Thou wilt not take away from me Thy Holy Spirit which strengthens and upholds me![283]

He saw that a guardian spirit had been with him from his earliest youth, that he had received talents for the purpose of promoting the glory of God, and that he would be unworthy to live if he had done otherwise than walk in the right path. As to pleasure, wealth, high position, he perceived that they all were vanity.

God was indeed speaking with him, but he comprehended only a small portion of it because the speech consisted in symbols of which, as et, he understood very few. He dreamed of a woman who owned a very beautiful estate where he walked about with her. He was to marry her. She signified piety and wisdom. All "affections" (emotions) were represented by women. It has been noted that the mystics, in cases of religious ecstasy, to express the love toward God, borrow from earthly love its vocabulary and even its physical counterparts.[284] Erotic elements are often astonishingly present in Swedenborg's dreams. Trained as he was in human physiology, he could note the significance of sexual dreams and describe them frankly and without the slightest attempt at concealment. "Such things, to worldly view, would be impure, but in themselves they are pure," he says after one of these intimate accounts. (April 24, 1744). Noble virgins represented verities and the philosophical studies which he loved, and his union with them signified his love of wisdom. The falsities that tried to hold him back appeared in gruesome forms. Thus a certain loathsome dream signified that he ought to employ his time upon what is higher, and not to write about worldly things which are far beneath. "God give me grace and enlighten me further!" he implored.[285]

* * * * *

All this time Swedenborg had been in Holland, attending to the publication of The Animal Kingdom, the first two volumes of which had left the press. In the spring of 1744 he dreamt about a ship, which was a sign to him that he ought to continue his work in England, so he decided to publish the third volume there. Before leaving he paid another visit to his friend, Ambassador Preis, and presented him with the first two volumes of his work. He arranged credits with his Amsterdam bankers, the Messrs. Grill, and on Monday, May 13, gave up his lodgings in Amsterdam and left for England, arriving at Harwich on May 15 - which was by the English calendar the fourth of May.

The night of his arrival Swedenborg dreamt of drawing some very beautiful designs for copperplates. This signified that he was about to produce some very handsome things - foreshadowing his next book, The Worship and Love of God.[286]

Another dream referred to a pious shoemaker "who was with me on the journey, and with whom I then lodged," he says. The "pious shoemaker," whom he had met during the journey, was John Seniff, a Moravian, who was returning to London after a visit with his children in Holland. Swedenborg asked him to recommend a family where he could live in quiet, and Mr. Seniff, who was warden of the German congregation in London, first brought him to his own home and later introduced him to John Paul Brockmer, a gold-watch engraver in Fleet Street, with whom Swedenborg took up lodgings four days later. Brockmer also was a Moravian and meetings of the Brethren were held at his home. For a time Swedenborg accompanied these people to the Moravian chapel in Fetter Lane, but he did not join their body. He attended the Swedish church, taking communion there, and making contributions of money[.28]7

He makes the following reference to the Moravians:

By various dispositions I was led into the chapel belonging to the Moravian Brethren, who claim to be the real Lutherans, and to feel the operation of the Holy Spirit which they tell one another... It may not yet be permitted me to join in brotherhood with them. Their chapel was shown to me three months ago, just as I afterward saw it, and all there were dressed like clergymen. (May 19-20).[288]

Swedenborg led a secluded life but was on friendly terms with Brockmer and they often conversed together. Brockmer was undoubtedly curious about this lodger, so intensely occupied with things of the spirit. We can easily surmise that something of the intensity of Swedenborg's exalted state would have conveyed itself to the household. Once he did not open his chamber door for two days, refusing to let the maid come in to make his bed and sweep the room. He desired to be let alone as he was about a great and solemn work, he said.

It was a disappointment to these Moravians that he failed to join their sect. The stupendous things he was experiencing lay outside their orbits and they may have resented it. In July he left Brockmer's house and moved to other lodgings, one of the reasons given being that Brockmer and his maid were in the habit of interrupting his studies and meddling with his papers.289

Before Swedenborg left, an annoying incident occurred which, many years later and greatly falsified, gave rise to the rumor that Swedenborg had then been insane. (See Epilog.)

Brockmer, being a watch-engraver, had business dealings with traders in jewelry, among whom there may have been some dishonest individuals.

Two Jews, we are told, finding Swedenborg lying unconscious in his room, took advantage of his condition to rob him of his gold watch. Swedenborg later discovered that his' watch had been removed from his pillow and asked the, men to restore it.

"Do you not know that in your ecstasy you seized the watch yourself, that you went out into the street and threw it into the gutter?" the men said.

"My friends, you know that this statement is false," was Swedenborg's answer. Afterward, when advised to prosecute the two rogues in a court of justice, he said it was not worth while. "By their actions they have injured themselves more than me. May the Lord have pity on them."[290]

* * * * *

Swedenborg was now at work on the third volume of The Animal Kingdom, dealing with the senses, but other lines of thought were opening up, and new plans were taking shape in his mind. In dreams he was shown a large; beautiful palace in which he desired to live so that he might always look out over the lovely grove of fig trees near it and the surrounding moat. "A window was open far down in one of the wings, and I thought I should like to have my room there. The palace may mean the plan of my work" (June 15-16).[291]

Once, between sleeping and waking, he was seized with "holy tremors" and again, in vision, beheld a man. "It must have been a holy angel," he concludes, "since I was not thrown upon my face." He had perceived it, he says, "with the interior senses separated from the exterior." It was the first of a long series of such internal sensations which became increasingly clear and continuous.[292]

He was first addressed by a spirit on the 21st of September. Swedenborg was deeply immersed in thought about his work when suddenly he heard the words, "Hold your tongue or I will strike you!" The occurrence frightened him, and he took it as a -warning not to engross himself so long in studies, particularly on Sundays and in the evening.[293] He was indeed an inveterate worker. He had completed rewriting the two hundred folio pages of his manuscript on The Five Senses in less than a month and a half! One wonders how he found time even to sharpen the goose quills that formed the point at which his remarkable mind reaches ours today! This amazing speed was possible only because his mind was exceedingly clear. Any strain put upon it was deliberate and self-imposed. In his own words, he was "in long and deep thoughts, unencumbered by cares and troubles." It was in his spiritual life that the temptations went on. In business he was prudent, in social life modest, and occasionally he took part in some pleasant diversion.

While writing the continuation of his stupendous work he dreamed of drinking heavenly nectar, a sign to him that help for his work would come from a higher source and that the Divine Being would use him merely as an instrument. "I am like an' instrument with which He does according to His good-pleasure . . . I wish I could become an instrument for slaying the Dragon!"[294]

Temptations still assailed him. Seduced by flattery, he bragged about his work. "No man but God alone can help me !" he cries in despair, and dreams that he is about to be gored by an enormous black ox "You will get through safely!" he is told. He has a premonition that something will happen to him when he has finished the first chapter on the sense of touch. The prophecy came true, for very soon afterward Swedenborg had another dream about : the gable end of the beautiful palace he had previously seen with the sun shining gloriously in the midst of it. "I was told that it has been resolved in that society that I am to become a member - as it were an immortal - which no one ever before has been, unless he had died and lived again."[295]

The new book was taking shape in his mind. Its title came to him in a dream. It would be "a Divine Book on the worship and love of God." And in a vision he was shown that this was to be entirely different from his other works, proceeding from an entirely different love. Yet he was in doubt as to whether it would not be regarded (by others) as mere talk, as a plaything. He was even tempted to abandon it, but received strength to continue (October 6-7).[296]

Two days later he wrote:

This night was the most delightful of all, because I had a vision of the Kingdom of Innocence. Beneath me I beheld the most beautiful garden that can ever be imagined. Upon every tree in turn were placed white roses. Afterward I came into a long chamber where beautiful white vessels stood, containing milk and bread. It was so appetizing that nothing more appetizing can be imagined. I was in company with a woman of whom I have no particular recollections. As I returned there came to me a beautiful and innocent little child ... It meant that I was in the Kingdom of Innocence, the child meaning innocence itself. I was quite moved by it, and wished I were in such a kingdom where all is innocence. I lamented, upon awakening, that I had to leave it.[297]

He felt that he had now lost all knowledge of religion but that God would instruct him. anew, since he had come into the state where he knew nothing, all preconceived opinions having been taken away from him. This, he says, is how knowledge of spiritual things begins. First you must become a child and then you must be nursed into knowledge. Those who strive to help themselves into the kingdom of heaven labor in vain and are in constant peril, but it is easy when a person turns to God:

But vain thoughts still persisted. A dog that was supposed to have been tied, flew at him and bit him in the leg. Someone came and held the terrible jaws so that the dog could do him no harm. This Swedenborg explained as referring to what had happened the previous day when he had attended a lecture at the London College of Physicians. "I was so presumptuous in my thoughts as to imagine that they might mention me, as one having a better understanding of anatomy."[298]

There were many things which to Swedenborg were tokens of divine guidance in the work he was now engaged in. He was warned "not to take anything of others' wares, not to undertake anything without Christ." With touching pathos he describes how he was shown that he must now altogether abandon scientific pursuits and transfer his interest to more lofty subjects. Sad rendings of the heart!

While I was walking with my friend through a long passage there came a beautiful girl who fell into his arms and moaned. I asked her if she knew him. She did not answer. I took her away from him and led her by the arm. It meant my other work, to which she addressed herself, and from which I took her into this one (October 26-27).[299]

Later, one morning, upon awakening, just as he saw the light of day, Swedenborg again experienced a swoon similar to that which he had had six or seven years before in Amsterdam when commencing his Economy of the Animal Kingdom. It was more subtle than the former swoon. He threw himself upon his face. It passed off. He fell into a brief slumber. As on the previous occasion, this meant to him that his brain was being set in order. and being cleansed from such things as might obstruct his thoughts.[300]

So closes the remarkable Journal of Dreams, in October, 1744, except for a final entry in May of the following year.

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