The Swedenborg epic

Table of Contents


Chapter 26 - Instead of Miracles

When Swedenborg took final leave of the Board of Mines, he intended as soon as possible to start on his sixth journey abroad, "to some place where he could finish the important work on which he was then engaged."[341] The important work was Explicationes Verbi. That Holland was his destination is evident from a memorandum in one of his manuscripts noting money spent for personal items in guilders and styfers, and from two letters. One is to a creditor, Carl Broman, and the other an instruction to his banker, Peter Hultman, to forward his mail, in 1748, to Amsterdam in care of Anton and Johan Grill, a firm of Swedish merchants.[342]

Again, as in 1744, his purpose was changed after his arrival in Holland. His work never was published but remained locked up in its three folio manuscript bundles until a century later when Dr. Immanuel Tafel published the Latin text under the title of Adversaria (Commonplace-Book). An English version first saw the light of day in completed form in recent years, through Dr. Alfred Acton's eight-volume publication: The Word Explained. The reason that Swedenborg changed his mind about publishing this work was presumably the fact that, while in Holland, he underwent a definite spiritual change.

Having finished the Explications in February, he resumed work on the Bible Index which, it seems, he brought to completion in Amsterdam. This concordance was the storehouse from which Swedenborg drew for Bible passages in all his subsequent theological writings.

Since a thorough study of Scripture requires a knowledge of the Hebrew language, it may have been just at this time that he took up the study of Hebrew, for in his diary are found various notes in that language, which was not entirely new to him, as he had studied Hebrew in his younger days at Upsala.[343] There were, of course, many learned Hebraists in Holland whom he could have consulted. Swedenborg states that "when heaven was opened to him he first had to learn the Hebrew language as well as the correspondences according to which the whole Bible is composed," and that this led him to read through God's Word many times.[344]

It was while working on the "Index to the books of Isaiah and Genesis" that he made the significant note which has been taken to indicate the exact time at which there dawned on him a distinctly deeper view of the nature of the Divine Word, leading him to abandon his former work and to begin something entirely new along very different lines:

"1747, August 7, old style. There was a change of state in me into the heavenly kingdom, in an image."

Students have taken this statement to mean that his mind was now opened to heaven, enabling him to see the spiritual content of the Word of God in fullness of truth,[345] and that under this new enlightenment Swedenborg saw his previous work of explanation as insufficient and unsatisfactory. What had been written was not the true internal sense.[346] In December, 1748, he began Arcana Coelestia and finished the first volume the following June.

This was the fourth time that Swedenborg had begun a commentary on Genesis. The first was his short essay, The Story o f Creation as related by Moses, where he is merely concerned with the literal sense of the Bible, story and its relationship to his cosmological panorama as given in The Worship and Love of God. His second treatment of Genesis was The Word Explained, where he sees "the interior historical sense" of the story of creation as applying to the Jewish people and containing a prophetical foreshadowing of the second coming of the Messiah. The third study of Genesis is contained in notes written on the margins of his Bible, now called Fragments on Genesis and Exodus, probably done late in 1747.[347] While he was engaged in these studies it became clear to him that the Genesis story held a hidden meaning of quite a different sort from the one previously given, an internal sense applicable to the development of the Lord's Kingdom in individual minds. An entirely new treatment was consequently demanded, which he can only describe as "Heavenly Mysteries." About this time, September, 1748, Swedenborg left Holland and journeyed to England, where he began the writing of Arcana Coelestia.

In the new work he rises from a contemplation of the historical or "spiritual-natural" sense of Scripture to its interior or truly spiritual sense which looks to the regeneration of the mind of man. It was "the Word as the angels see it." He now enjoyed an inspiration which accounts for both the rapidity with which the new work was written - eight months for the first volume - and also for his change of style. No longer is there hesitation or doubt as to the meaning of words, as to correspondences, as to whether this or that should be included in the text; no longer is there adherence to orthodox theological terminology. Above all, there is no doubt about the name by which the Lord God should be addressed:

In the following work, by the name Lord is meant the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, and Him only; and He is called "the Lord" without the addition of other names. Throughout the universal heaven He it is who is acknowledged and adored as Lord, because He has all sovereign power in the heavens and on the earth . . . [348]

When one compares this work with all his previous writings one sees at once that now he speaks as one having authority.

Nothing better illustrates the change that had taken place in Swedenborg's mind at this time, than his change of terminology. Some of the expressions - and to some extent even the ideas - employed in his previous works were taken from orthodox theology and embody the dogmas of the Lutheran Church in which he had been raised. Throughout these intermediate works are found phrases which seem to indicate a belief in three Persons in the Godhead and the doctrine of vicarious atonement. The Worship and Love of God, for example, seems to describe two divine Persons one of whom, the Omnipotent, "is burning with the zeal of a just anger and, armed with lightnings, would have destroyed universal society," had not the other, His Only-begotten [Son], "cast himself into the midst of the rage and embraced human minds with His -arms . . .

At sight of this Our Supreme laid aside His lightnings, lest at the same time He should devote His Only-begotten to His most just anger, and when He entreated Him in vain to depart, the Only-begotten, burning with the fire of Love, refused, entreating that He would spare those ignorant and guiltless beings or destroy Himself with them, saying that He was willing to take upon Him the blame of the guilty and to suffer the penalties of justice . . . On this occasion the Most Holy Parent was so affected that He not only abated the flame of His justice, but before He departed was compelled, out of Love, to promise that, for His sake alone, He would indulge that world- . . and gave Our Love [=the Messiah] the power of binding and loosing at pleasure, that tyrant, His enemy . . . [349]

In The Word Explained it is stated that "the life and soul of the blood of Messiah appeased the Father" and that the Messiah, by the merit of this blood, "bore in Himself and thus removed the sins both of the Jews and the Gentiles." Even later Swedenborg seems to refer to the Holy Spirit as a Third Person of the Godhead. It is to such expressions as these that he alludes when saying that "the things written and published by me concerning the devil . . . could not have been written differently, inasmuch as the Christian world does not believe differently." In other words, such terms were used because they expressed the understanding of the literal sense of the Divine Word as then commonly accepted. It was a statement of that doctrine out of which Swedenborg considered it his mission to lead men.[350]

* * * * *

For several years Swedenborg had been keeping a daily record of his spiritual experiences. At first he had jotted down such experiences with the text of The Word Explained, indenting the paragraphs that recorded his contacts with spirits. These lines were not meant for publication. He afterward recorded such experiences in a separate volume known as his Spiritual Diary.[351] The first 148 items in this diary were written while he was still in Sweden and now are lost, but their nature is known to us from the carefully worked out "Index to the Spiritual Diary" made by Swedenborg himself. Mostly they relate to the nature of spirits.

A certain annotation written in September, 1748, has led to the surmise that the lost manuscript may possibly have burned up, for he says that "he dreamed about his lost writings, and the fireplace in which they were burned." During his stay in Holland, also, he became anxious about his papers that were stored in the empty space above the ceiling in his garden house, and he wrote, in a letter to his agent, Peter Hultman:

While I think of it, you will please not to have any fire made in the stove of the pavilion, as the chimney in the loft is open below, so that sparks might fly out and set fire to my papers that are in the loft, where I have stored my books and other things.[352]

The new "opening" of Swedenborg's mind to consciousness of another world had taken place gradually. The first of his psychic awakenings was the unusual or "preternatural" sleep which he experienced in October, 1743, while he was beginning The Economy of the Animal Kingdom. The Lord's first manifestation to him, related in The Journal o f Dreams, occurred in 1744.[353] His experiences of glimpses into the spiritual world had reached their height when he was addressed by a spirit. Then came his "Call" of April, 1745, after which time he spoke with spirits as man to man. From then on, he says, he was at the same time in heaven and with his friends on earth.[354]

In describing the various ways in which spirits can consciously operate on a man, Swedenborg indicates that his first awareness of spirits was "by a sensation of obscure sight," and that he noticed their presence, approach, and departure. He tells of being surrounded by a crowd of spirits of those who had died many years before.[355] He is informed that the other world is full of malignant forces and evil spirits who hold in bondage many myriads of simple and sincere but uninstructed souls, imprisoned there by their own false notions and erroneous beliefs. To these he had a special mission.

He awoke one night from a troubled sleep and, trembling, perceived that he was surrounded by "a column of angels" amongst whom was the Messiah himself. The thought came that these angels constituted "a wall of brass" whose purpose was to defend him against the evil. He was afterward let down to the unhappy in a certain region of the spiritual world called "the lower Earth." [Terra inferior]

"I heard such lamentations as these, O God! O God! Jesus Christ, have mercy! Jesus Christ have mercy! "' One of those pitiful wretches complained of being tormented by spirits who were allowed to inflict dire tortures on him. Swedenborg consoled him with the thought that the Lord, all merciful, will eventually release the prisoners from that pit, raise them from their place of torment, and take them into heaven.

Another night he seemed to himself to be in a boat, and to pass through a roaring sea, terribly black. The waves lashed about from right to left and rocked the shore where he finally found himself standing. He was conscious of a violent commotion as great multitudes of prisoners were delivered from the bondage of the pit, a sign that "the last time" was near at hand. "Let men be watchful!"[356]

He later saw some of those previously benighted souls being raised into heaven, clothed in white raiment, instructed and given beautiful mansions. It appeared as if God embraced one of them and kissed him. "Most of them appear to themselves to be riding in chariots and vehicles and to be carried around to various places, trying whether this or that place be suitable for them, that is, whether they agree with the souls who are there." For every soul finally finds a place of rest, in a society where he can abide in peace.

Swedenborg saw two people whom he had known in the world elevated into an interior heaven. They said that their joy was ineffable, all terrestrial and worldly delights being as nothing in comparison. No tongue can utter the peace experienced in heaven. He says that it is "the complex of all joy, freedom from bodily desires, cares and worries for the future." One night before falling asleep, he heard the singing of many angels of the interior heavens and was told that the whole heaven thus continually glorifies the Lord.[357] But to those who are not ready for a heavenly state, he says, the atmosphere of the superior regions is so disagreeable as almost to suffocate them. This was the case with certain spirits who insisted on being elevated and were permitted to try it, but soon cast themselves down headlong.

The state of spiritual abstraction with Swedenborg was not, at this time, continuous. On December 5, 1747, he says:

Whenever I lapsed into thoughts concerning worldly things, then what I had perceived in the heavenly, mansion instantly disappeared; thus do those who let their thoughts down into the world fall down from heaven. As often as it was given me to think of my garden, of him who has had the care of it, of my being called home, of money matters, of the state of mind of those of my acquaintances that were known to me, of the state or character of those in my house, of the things that I was to write, especially how they would be received by others and the probability that they would not be understood, of new garments that were to be obtained, and various others things of this kind-whenever I was held for some time in this kind of reflection, spirits would immediately throw in inconvenient, troublesome and evil suggestions . . . whence arises the melancholy of many persons . . .[358]

On March 4, 1748, he wrote:

I have now been almost three years, or thirty-three months, in that state in which-my mind being withdrawn from corporeal things-I could be in the societies of the spiritual and the celestial and yet be like another man in the society of men without any difference; at which spirits also wondered. However, when I intensely adhered to worldly things in thought; as when I had care concerning necessary expenses - about which I this day wrote a letter so that my mind was for some time detained therewith - I fell, as it were, into a corporeal state, so that the spirits could not converse with me, as they also said, because they were as though absent . . . From this I am enabled to know that spirits cannot speak with a man who is much devoted to worldly and corporeal cares, for bodily concerns, as it were, draw down the ideas of the mind and immerse them in corporeal things.[359]

On the first day of March, 1748, he experienced something resembling the state of death and resurrection.

I was this day, in the morning, put into the condition of those who die, in order that I might know what is their state when dying and also their successive states after death. Dead, indeed, I was not, but yet I was brought into a certain state of insensibility as to the bodily senses. The interior life, in the meantime, remained entire, so that I might perceive and retain in the memory the circumstances incidental to those who die . . .

He describes the partial suppression of his breathing and how "the celestial angels moved in and occupied the province of the heart," guarding it from exploitation by evil genii:

When any man is dying, celestial angels are immediately present. Sitting beside his head they are continually in attendance, thus guarding him from the approach of evil genii. This service they render to every man; yea, and those celestial beings remain with him even long after the soul is released from its corporeal tenement. Nor does it matter whether a man die in his bed, or whether in battle, or in some other way, since all that is vital of man - however scattered may be the parts of his body, yea; were it possible, even thousands of miles asunder - would nevertheless be reassembled in a moment, and form a one.[360]

This experience, like many others recounted in The Spiritual Diary, was incorporated into Arcana Coelestia in spite of the desire of certain spirits who were averse to anything being said concerning such revelations.

But it was replied that they are [given] instead of miracles, and without them men would not know the character of the book, nor would they buy it, or read it, or understand it, or be affected by it, or believe it-in a word, they would remain in ignorance of the whole subject. Such as are merely learned will for the most part reject them.[361]

As for the spirits themselves who encountered this remarkable soul - this inhabitant of two worlds at once, the living and the dead - they commonly called him underlig, the strange, the wonderful, the unaccountable one.[362]

The spiritual adventures that Swedenborg at this time experienced were of a nature hardly conceivable. This was a field that called for courage, but courage of a different kind from that of usual adventurers. Here was a man well born, endowed with genius, a man for whom the doors of the political as well as the learned world stood open with their rewards of fame. What had he chosen to do with this endowment? He had chosen to risk all on a career that could bring him little but scorn from his contemporaries, persecution from the orthodox clergy and enmity from his relations who saw him squandering his time and substance on publishing books that nobody read: But he did not expect an immediate appreciation. He says in one of the anatomical works:

Not the glory of the finding, but the truth that is found is what gladdens me, and it is to the friends of truth alone that I appeal. A later age-if not the present-will laugh at all others . . He is born to few things who thinks of the people of his own age. Many thousands of years and of peoples are yet to come. Look to these, even though some cause has imposed silence on thy contemporaries:

"Those will come who shall judge without enmity and without favor," he quoted from Seneca.[363]

These risks, however, were as nothing compared to another danger - the danger of communication with the dead, of intercourse with a world of spirits packed with legions of demons, waiting to rush in upon him and destroy him body and soul. Swedenborg realized this danger. While he was asleep in his bed they plotted, he says, to strangle him. They surrounded him with nightmares and visions so horrible as nearly to destroy his reason. They inspired him with an almost uncontrollable desire to commit suicide. They tried to make him drink something that would deprive him of understanding. They inflicted excruciating pains upon various parts of his body, causing nausea, swooning, or fever.[364]

"I doubt whether others could have endured it on account of the pain," he says, "but having become accustomed to it I at last bore it often without pain." Once a spirit seemed to come up to him stealthily from behind and plunge a dagger into him. "I felt as it were a stroke through the heart," he says, "and immediately another in the brain such as easily would have killed a man. But being protected by the Lord, I feared nothing . . . Unless the Lord defended man every moment . . . he would instantly perish, in consequence of the indescribably intense and mortal hatred which prevails in the world of spirits against the things of love and faith towards the Lord. [But] the devil can do no harm to those whom the Lord protects, as it has been granted me to know from much astonishing experience, so that at last I have no fear even of the worst of the infernal crew."[365]

This sublime confidence, this complete childlike trust in the Lord's protection, was the heart of Swedenborg's courage. We cannot forget, however, that he suffered all this to bring down to earth, as he firmly believed, information of inestimable spiritual worth. His dangerous mission required courage of a very special order, courage that has little in common with the kind that wins medals. In a treatise on the soul he gives a definition of courage that we submit as a suitable description of his own:

Genuine courage is never united to the love of self, but is the inseparable companion of the love of the many, thus of society . The most despicable and the lowest of all mortals is he who fears nothing for the truth, for sacred things, for heaven and the Deity, but only for himself . . Souls that are sublime and elevated above mortal things do not fear to undergo death for the truth, especially for heavenly and divine truth, because they are fearful for the truth and dread its extinction.[366]

Perhaps because of its baffling nature, The Spiritual Diary has received less study than the rest of Swedenborg's works, although efforts are occasionally made to call attention to its remarkable contents.[367]

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