One Man’s Striving: Part 3
by William Gayley Simpson
Part 3 of 7
The author of Which Way Western Man? spent nine years attempting to live in full accord with the teachings of Jesus before he realized their irreconcilable incompatibility with his own innermost nature.
(ILLUSTRATION: SAILING to the Orient in October 1927: William Simpson was on his way to visit Gandhi. After reaching India, however, he realized that the only guru with any meaning for him was already inside him.)
Editor’s Introduction: In the last excerpt from his autobiography which appeared in these pages, we left William Simpson at the beginning of 1920 with the realization that a life as a radical labor organizer was not for him. His work experiences among the laborers in America’s mines and mills had convinced him that the country’s economic system and social order were utterly un-Christian, but he refused to employ the equally un-Christian means of class warfare, with its concomitant violence and class hatred, in an attempt to build a Christian society. He believed that the means must not contradict the end.
In the summer of 1920 he retreated to a tiny, uninhabited island in the St. Lawrence River, in order to read, meditate, and decide on the future course of his life:
* * *
SO HERE, in the midst of the pine grove, I pitched my tent and settled myself for what was to prove one of the most momentous months of my life.
Indeed, I approached it with a certain tremulous expectancy. As I read Matthew Arnold’s ‘The Buried Life” one of my first evenings on the island, there came over me the deeply reverent and wistful feeling that at last I was going to know what it was really to live. The holds that had held me back were slipping loose. The work of which for nearly ten years I had dreamed and which for nearly ten years I had thrust from me and avoided — that work, my work, the work God had made me for and for which I had slowly been freeing myself ever since I left the Church — that work I was about to begin. At 28 I, the real I, was going to begin to live.
Yet the significance of that month did not lie chiefly in any new decisions. For the most part I was pretty well settled in my mind before I set foot on the island as to what I should do. I was going to part with all I possessed; I was going to earn my living with my hands, probably as a carpenter; I was going to seek a way to identify myself with the common people; and I was going to reject the State. That month of solitude was to prove significant chiefly as a time when I consolidated my positions and sought strength for the crucial period of action that lay ahead ….
My determination to give away all that I owned had several roots. On the one hand I found myself unhappy living in security if not in comfort while others in the world had not enough to eat and no place to lay their heads. Moreover, I was convinced that the simple, fundamental, and inescapable reason that most people had so very little of this world’s goods was that some others had so very much ….
And yet again, by giving away all I had I wished to express my utter scorn of that passion for possessions, with their so-called security and power, which for most men then as now were the supreme and primary objects of their lives. Beginner though I still was in the things of the spirit, I felt within me a security that was quite beyond the reach of the worst blows that hostile men or adverse circumstances could rain upon me. The real citadel of my life was not in what I had but in what I was. And of that citadel I, and I alone, was the keeper. Not what men might do to me, but what I chose to do myself, only that could make or mar my real life…
And Jesus, it must be remembered, was still really my only teacher. Indeed, the word “teacher” cannot convey what he was to me. It was as though I were under his spell. He had captured my imagination as had no one else in all my life. Any philosophizing to the contrary notwithstanding, I inclined to take as truth whatever it could be shown he had said. And had he not said, “If any man comes unto me and does not part with all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple”?
Had he not conditioned real life on loving one’s neighbor as oneself; and was it not an obvious denial of equal love to one’s neighbor to hug to oneself even the coat on one’s back if another man had need of it?
Had he not sent out his disciples without purse or penny, or even bread for their journey, counseling them the while against laying up treasures or being anxious for the morrow?
Had he not taught his disciples to give to everyone who asked of them, and from him who would borrow of them not to turn away; and had he not replied to the rich young man, “If, thou wouldst be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast and give to the poor, and then come and follow me”?
At the time I had no other precedent to sustain me. But his was enough. It was idle to try to tell me that Jesus was an Oriental and spoke in hyperbole, or that he was a poet and not to be taken literally, or that his world was very different from ours and that, therefore, a teaching which went very well in Palestine 2,000 years ago or in Italy in the Middle Ages simply could not be put into practice in the complex, industrial, scientific world of our day. For me Jesus’ teaching was no “interim ethic.” I believed he had spoken to be understood and that he had meant just what he said; and behind this conviction I had the support of the life Jesus lived and his disciples lived with him, and the further conviction of my own soul that what he had said — above all his “hard sayings,” the part everybody was most anxious to explain away but which I was most set on taking seriously — was every bit of it literally true and absolutely sound.
I could not see any reason in the world why this teaching could not be put into practice by anyone who was willing to take the consequences of practicing it. In any case, nothing but living it could save it. That no one really believed in it any more was obvious. And if men went on much longer merely crying, “Lord, Lord,” but not even attempting to do what “the Lord” so plainly said, sooner or later his teaching would pass away.
So I too, out of my conviction that it was the truth and out of my consequent devotion to it, would quite literally part with all I possessed. The things I used would be to me as though lent. I would give anything I had to anyone who needed it or wanted it. I would unlearn the meaning of “mine” and “thine.” ….
I wanted again to draw close to the common life of humanity from which somehow I and my kind had become separated. My heart reached out to all those in need — the oppressed, the poor, the outcast, those of alien race and unsavoury reputation. I was resolved, also, as I had opportunity, to identify myself with those who were being wronged ….
The current of Marxist thought, together with my experience in the world of Labor, had left me very much an environmentalist in my social philosophy, and a romantic as well. By nature the people themselves were all right. The dull wit, low taste, and nasty character so common in the populace were to be traced primarily to denial of opportunity ….
Jesus’ cry, both to himself and to his disciples, was: “Be true! Be true! Let the light in you come out, without ceasing!Be the salt that you are!” And there was some sure instinct in me that made me believe, even then, that in the long run the deepest-cutting and farthest-reaching contribution of which any man’s life was capable was to be realized by his living out fully the life that really belonged to him.
His effect might not be great, even so: having a great effect is not something that is given to every man. But great or small, the most significant effect any man was capable of would come from his simply being what he really was. In the last analysis, every man’s supreme gift was himself. Let him but allow his God to walk the earth in him as he would, even as Jesus did. The rest would take care of itself.
What would come of it all, that I did not know. How can any man know the effect his life is going to have, or even what effect it is having at any given time? Whether I was right or wrong, whether much would come of my venture or nothing, to the end that remained my gamble. Whether we like it or not, we either succumb to our doubts when they become torturing enough, or we live by our faith. And I had a faith. I believed in man — or, if you prefer (it all comes to the same thing), in God. I believed in the possible and unpredictable significance of one man. I knew what had flowed from Jesus and St. Francis and Tolstoy and many another ….
Organization would never save the world and lead it to the promised land, I said to myself, nor money, nor books, nor buildings, nor technics, but a man would, men would, one man after another going the old way of faithfulness even unto death ….
By this time it must have become apparent to anyone with the eye of insight that at least two motives were at work in me, which did not really go together and could not be held together for long. On the one hand, there was all that had leaped within me as I read the life of St. Francis and through him came to a fresh vision of a new and different Jesus. It was largely a love that went out to all men and drew me close to them and made me want to spend myself for them. It sprang from a direct intuitive perception. It was simple, childlike, and overflowed from the heart. And it was unpretentious, unself-conscious, predominantly positive, and free from ulterior motives. It was this impulse that I had become aware of first, and I believe it was the deepest in me.
But it was overlaid by all that made me a rebel, a reformer, and an intellectual. There was Christianity (as distinguished from Jesus), with its pity for the weak and the botched, with its ruinous doctrine of equality, with its moralizing and its moral rules (the new Judaism), with its lust for reform, for making converts, for changing people, and for “bringing in” the Kingdom of God.
And I had in me, besides, all the effects of academic intellectualizing, which constantly strives to put life in leading strings to reason. One must have understanding of oneself and explanation of oneself that is acceptable to the mind. Conduct must have a rationale. One must not act until one can show the reasons for such action, even though, Tolstoy-like, they be numbered down almost to 50.
* * *
Editor’s Note: He returned to his parents’ home in Elizabeth, New Jersey. to put his affairs in order and to dispose of all of his belongings. He kept only one suitcase of clothes and personal effects, and his carpenter’s tools. He decided to begin his Franciscan life in Carteret, the drab New Jersey mill town where he had once been a Presbyterian minister:
* * *
It was October 19th, 1920, that I kissed my mother goodbye, my mother whose love, I knew, reached out to me with her whole being and who struggled so hard not to let me see her anguish. I walked out the door and down the steps of the old home, down the street where I had played when I was a boy, and on to the center of the town, where I got the trolley to Carteret. And shortly after, with my bag and my kit of tools, I arrived there, penniless.
* * *
Editor’s Note: It was not a comfortable situation into which he had placed himself. He intended to give his labor, as an offering of love, to anyone who needed it; and to take nothing for himself except that which was freely given in charity, and then only enough to meet his daily needs. But the people of Carteret did not greet him with open arms. Most were in-different to him; and some, suspicious of his motives, were hostile.
Nevertheless, he persevered: he shoveled snow from people’s side-walks without being asked or waiting for payment; he reconditioned a chicken house for a farmer and built a porch for someone else; and gradually he gained a grudging acceptance, not only in Carteret but also in South Amboy and other nearby towns, where he also offered his services.
Soon after he began this new life he felt an urge to speak to the people about the things which were in his heart. He began in South Amboy:
* * *
I tried to get a permit for street-speaking, but I was refused. Religion, I was told, was dangerous stuff. One could never tell what it might lead to. As I anticipated that this would mean an effort to speak without a permit and, likely, jail, I went home to get in a little farewell visit with my family first. I did not breathe a word of what might be just ahead ….
When I arrived back in Amboy, about five o’clock Saturday evening, no one was on the streets. I tried, therefore, to make myself think that I was relieved of the necessity of speaking. But that would not go down: probably people were at supper and would be out in an hour or so. I went to the railroad station to keep warm while I waited, and left my bag with the ticket agent.
Other men were in the station, and to some of them I really felt moved to speak. But I could not. Had only one of them asked me a question, or revealed that he had some need! But to try to talk to them when I did not know that they wanted it seemed like forcing myself upon them. Anyhow, I simply did not know what to say to them or how to establish a point of contact. No — I could not do it.
So I got my bag and went out, thinking to go home. But I found some people on the streets by this time. And, feeling I must make another try, I left my bag at an A&P store. Then I walked up and down the street, stopping now beside this group, now beside that, but always finding that my courage failed me.
I went back to the station. A large crowd was on the platform waiting for a train. Here, I thought, was my chance. I would walk up and down the platform once, and then I would begin. But I couldn’t. I’d walk up and back once more. But still I could not get my mouth to utter the first words. And then the train came and took the people all away.
Disgusted with myself and sick at heart over my failure I got my bag for the second time and started out to the farm. But I found that if I could not make my tongue speak, no more would my conscience let my feet take me home till I did.
So I returned to the main street, and there on a corner stood a group of five fellows. I took my place beside them, near enough to hear what they were saying. This established a human contact that I had lacked before. And as I sensed the emptiness of their lives and the poverty of their souls, I forgot my fear. I felt an impulse rising within me. And then, before I knew it, I stepped into a gap in their circle and said quietly, “You won’t mind if I ask you a question, will you?”
“No!” they said, as they all fixed their eyes upon me.
“Well — how many of you have found happiness in life?”
An expression of hopelessness seemed to break from them all, as some of them exclaimed, with a sick, hollow laugh, “Not I!”
“Well, I have,” I said, and went on to tell them how.
They bantered me for a while, but gradually became more serious, and we talked about the deepest things of life. I did not press matters. If they seemed to want to change the subject, I went with them. But they would keep coming back, interested in spite of themselves. They asked about this Inner Kingdom that had already come and would always come in anyone who hears the voice of God within and surrenders to it his all; and who, under the spell of this spirit of love, forgets himself in his love for others.
They asked about my way of life, seeming unable quite to believe that I really gave my work free, and that I was in earnest when I declared that all I had was no less theirs. Perhaps it was to test my sincerity that one of them finally took five dollars of the ten I offered them — all I had ….
When I made a move to start home, they urged me not to be in a hurry.
And when at last I did break from them, before I got out of town I found one of them waiting for me at a street corner, and we talked another half hour about life. Quite a little of it was about sex relations, which had also been the subject of very earnest conversation while I was with the group.
The next afternoon, upon my return to Amboy, I felt I should seek my friends of the night before. John Bannon, the fellow who had followed me, I found in the depot, along with three or four others. A chance remark of one of them gave me my opportunity, and we all talked together for about an hour and a half. Before I left John asked me if I wouldn’t come and talk with the fellows in the pool hall the next night, at about nine o’clock, after the movies.
The next night I was there at nine o’clock. For perhaps half an hour we just chatted and watched the games. But presently a question was asked, bystanders were drawn in, and soon we had a group large enough to interfere with those playing pool. It was a rough crowd, mostly of Irish Catholics, many of them very bigoted. At first some tried to shock me or to make me a joke or to browbeat me. But I laughed with them when they threw jibes, and tried with gentle reasoning to turn the point of their dislike when they called me “hypocrite.” The two bitterest Catholics, who did their best to corner me, finally gave up in disgust, as though I were hopeless and not worth bothering with anyway. But later I noticed them on the edge of the crowd, one of them listening very attentively.
The crowd asked questions about everything: the voice within; the possibility of feeling love for all men, even for Germans and personal enemies; what one would do if one’s mother were attacked by a ruffian; about “heaven” and “hell”; about prayer and the Church; about sexual purity; and many other things. They kept it up, the crowd increasing toward the end, until 11:15. Then I went home, but not until they had urged me to come down the next night — and to come early.
I was there the next night at seven o’clock. This time the talk turned to economics, yet we had some very earnest thought.
The night following I felt led to go to a prayer-meeting in the Presbyterian church. Only a scant dozen people were present, and they listened very listlessly, save for one or two, so that I was moved to say, wistfully, that there was danger lest the fellows in the pool hall enter into the Kingdom of God ahead of us. And I told them how those fellows had talked with me most earnestly about the deepest things of life, literally by the hour. But they did not like it.
On the way home I stopped in at the pool hall, thinking to stay only a few minutes. But one of the boys at once called me over, and soon I was again the center of an eager group of questioners. The crowd grew till we so interfered with the pool players that we had to move. I stayed till 11 o’clock.
I went to the pool hall each night that week. About Thursday one of the most earnest of the crowd told me he had been trying to give the fellows in another gang some idea of what I had been saying in the pool hall. As he had not been very successful, they wanted to know if I wouldn’t come over and spend some hours with them. In consequence I spent most of the evenings of the following week with this crowd. It gathered in a corner grocery store.
On the whole they struck me as cleaner in their living and certainly in their speech than the lot that hung around the pool hall, but there was less hunger of soul among them. They were abject slaves of the Catholic Church, bigoted, superstitious, complacent, dead.
For a long time the first night I almost despaired of breaking through or getting around the endless questions and objections with which they interrupted me in behalf of their church. But at last, somehow, they stopped to listen. And then I poured out to them all my heart. A deep silence followed.
Presently one of them, with a faraway look in his eyes, said quietly, “It would be a great world if everyone thought like that and lived like that, wouldn’t it!” And in my joy at this response I cried, “But you can, you can! That’s the wonderful thing about it, that everyone of us can have that kind of a world within himself now! ‘Heaven’ is wherever God is, wherever love is. And God can and will take full possession of our hearts now, if only we let him.”
But they were more impressed with the weakness of human nature: we are only men; we can’t be perfect; we can’t be like Jesus.
I kept coming to the store almost every night that week. And now and then it was worth while. But more and more the talk seemed to gravitate down to argument about the Catholic Church. I could not say enough, “I don’t want to argue; I won’t argue. Nor am I attacking your church, or any other church, or trying to ram anything whatever down your throats. If you are satisfied with your present way of life and the teaching of your church, if nothing I have said or am trying to do has quickened anything within you, I would not try to undermine your happiness or force my beliefs upon you. I am not here to condemn. Let each man follow the way of life that seems to him best.”
But I felt that a hunchback expressed the general verdict of the whole crowd when he remarked that I was a “nice fellow,” but I was “on the wrong track.”
Meanwhile, in the pool hall also, where, for all the vulgarity and roughness, the eagerness to talk with me had been greatest, it became evident that the first eagerness was dying out. There was still a friendliness and a certain something else that they showed toward me and not toward one another, but there was no longer that desire to talk with me by the hour about the deep things of life.
* * *
Editor’s Note: The apparent lack of any lasting effect from his speaking efforts was discouraging. Other things also led to self-doubt and to uncertainty about the correctness of his course. At the same time, however, this was an important period of spiritual development for Simpson, of increasing sensitivity to the voice of God within himself:
* * *
The prayer side of my life had been undergoing a change for years. I cannot remember how far back I ceased to pray for things. But even all regularity in prayer I had stopped while I was still a minister. Too many times I found myself merely carrying out a resolution and going through a routine. One day I sprang from my knees and exclaimed, ‘This isn’t real. I am going to pray when I feel like it, and not put myself through the form of it when I don’t.”
After that there might be times when I prayed for hours; and there might be times when I did not get down on my knees for days on end. Prayer became a matter of the outreach of my whole being toward new and higher life, or of the little cries of longing, or adoration, or of joy and blessing that whispered through my mind or sometimes escaped my lips.
Even while this was still my approach, I went on to something, more and more wordless. I simply undertook to be still, and in that stillness to listen. I had to learn that it is possible to be still, and more still, and utterly still; and that it was the utter stillness that I must strive to reach. It took me a long, long time to learn how it felt to be utterly still; and to know when I was utterly still.
Nevertheless, from this time on, this inner stillness began to be more and more the very center of my life. For me, it was God who spoke to me here. Less and less was he an idea or an ideal, a theological abstraction or a metaphysical absolute. He was not something to be argued about or that could be proved or needed proving. He was not something to be found in a book or in someone who lived a long while ago. He was something I knew by experience. He was that which spoke and moved within me in the deep stillness of my being ….
While my days were full of this and that, and my hopes and dreams rose and fell, my spiritual growth went ever on, quietly and steadily. One evening it came to me what Jesus had meant by “narrow is the gate, and straitened the way, that leadeth unto life.” Once, I had taken it to mean the straight and narrow way of the Puritan, worked out by the mind and imposed by the will, but my unfolding insight had revealed to me that it did not. The “gate” was mystical experience, extended awareness, heightened sensitiveness to reality and to value, a new faculty of perception, an inner ear attuned to new music. Only by this could a man enter that world of reality which Jesus called the Kingdom of God.
Without this added sensitiveness that world is as much closed as is a sunrise or a look of love to a man born blind. This gate is so narrow that only he can enter it who will make himself nothing. And even after he has entered he is confronted with many different choices. Many different voices call to him, many that speak for the security and advantage of his little self as well as the one (it is always only one) that would lead him toward the highest life.
And how well the voices of fear and self-seeking learn to simulate the “still, small voice” of God! It is difficult therefore, under all circumstances, to be able to be sure which of all these voices is the voice of God, and then always to follow it. A man has to learn to thread his way through a maze. But uncertainty is resolved and disappears the more he is inwardly hushed in utter self-surrender. When at last this is complete, all voices are still but one. This, really, is different from any other voice, and in time, by much hearing of it under all sorts of circumstances, he comes to know it beyond any possibility of confusion.
* * *
Editor’s Note: Elsewhere he describes the mystical insight on which he was coming to rely — what he sometimes called his “Inner Light” – as neither feeling nor thought, but a resolution of the two: “a synthesis of all the highest perceptive faculties in us” and “the surest, soundest, and most exalted wisdom” of which man is capable.
Simpson’s spiritual growth did not ease his self-doubt, however; if anything, the “still, small voice” to which he was learning to listen with greater diligence was pressing him harder than before, raising new conflicts within him, and leaving him less decided as to his proper course.
He did not stay in Carteret, but moved to several other areas to pursue his way of poverty and service. Passaic, New Jersey, about 18 miles north of Carteret, became the focus of his activities for several years, beginning in January 1922, and he eventually took up residence in a dilapidated shack in Wallington, a poor, outlying district of Passaic.
It was there that he wrestled most mightily with the questions troubling him. Perhaps the most nagging question of all was whether or not the Franciscan way should be his way. Years later he wrote of this period:
* * *
I cannot say that the Franciscan life I was trying to live still commands my full admiration. Far from it. There was much about Francis of Assisi that I now find repugnant and deplorable. Franciscanism was something I had to get out of me, and even more so the Christianity that made me susceptible to it. But the way to get them out of me was not, by any means, to break with them while they yet remained the best I knew.
If a man is to grow toward wholeness his life must be built up, bit by bit, out of the deposits resulting from his obedience to his own inner perception. If he rejects an idea or a purpose or a motive, it must be, not because of outside pressure from those who are older or reputedly wiser or obviously in the majority, but solely because he himself sees through it and on his own perception recognizes that it is empty, ugly, or false. To break faith with the best one knows on the strength of another’s conviction or opposition is to cut oneself off from that gathering nucleus of vitality and vision which alone can make one into an organic whole: no satellite but a freely moving and shining sun, a “self-rolling wheel,” as Nietzsche put it.
Whatever remained for me the best I knew, therefore, remained for me my “golden luminous cord,”  which alone could lead me out of my labyrinth into the light, out of the morass of my confusion onto firm ground. Sound or erroneous,whatever commends itself to a man’s deepest consciousness as the best he knows is his only clue to the way he should go, and following it his only hope of ever becoming wholly alive. Indeed, it contains his surest hope of getting rid of whatever error his best perception may contain. By following it out faithfully to the end he subjects it to the test of experience, by which the chaff is sifted from the wheat; he gives it a body, as it were, by which he can see it for what it is, and if there be error recognize it as error and cast it forth.
Said Blake, “If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise” (italics mine); and again, ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” It was necessary, therefore, that I follow my Inner Light right down to the very end of the path it gave me, explore it thoroughly, exhaust all its possibilities; and then perhaps my Inner Light itself, out of the lessons of this experience, might give me a way to go that left the old errors behind.
* * *
Editor’s Note: He was to persist for nearly eight more years, and he was actually to plunge much more deeply into Franciscanism before seeing its folly. One facet of the society around him which proved a constant goad to him was the utter lack of Christian charity and brotherhood in most of those who called themselves Christians.
Note 2 – Toward the Rising Sun, William G. Simpson (Vanguard Press, 1935), p. 49.
During the Christmas season of 1923, in an incident which is also related in Which Way Western Man?, he took off his shoes and walked barefoot through the snow in bitterly cold weather to downtown Passaic to speak to the people on the streets.  What he began telling them, until he was arrested and hauled off to jail, was this:
* * *
“0 people of Passaic, I come to you in the name of all those on earth who suffer. How can we stand it to be well fed and warm, when even in wealthiest America there are millions who hunger, when in Europe and India and the Near East … there are millions who starve to death, millions clad in rags, millions even of women and children who walk on the winter’s ice without shoes or stockings?
“What is the use of all our talking about Jesus, when he said very plainly that so long as we left one human being hungry or thirsty or cold or unfriended or in prison, even so we left him?
“Where is the brotherly love in our hearts if we leave these people to suffer alone while we literally waste the food and money and time which might save them … ?
“If anyone of these millions were members of our own families, under the same roof, sitting down at the same table, could true love do anything less than share with them equally, until our need was as great as theirs, and their supply as great as ours? … But we are all members of one family, one great family, whose only mother and father is God, taking in every human being, the Black and the Red and the Yellow the same as the White; the German, the Russian, the Italian, the Pole, the Jap the same as the American; Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, all the same; Jew, Christian, Hindu, Mohammedan, atheist, Buddhist — they, too, all the same ….
“If some feast while others starve, what can it mean but that some have snatched from their brothers’ plates? Decently disguised and plausibly excused as it may be, can the bald fact be other than that some are strong and have stolen?
“I have profited by this stealing too long. But I can do it no longer …. To meet my daily needs I will go forth with a beggar’s bowl to receive the droppings from the table of the Lord. And … the visible sign and pledge of fidelity to my Lord … shall be this: that henceforward, so long as he desires it of me, while there is one human being in need, I will go without shoes.”
* * *
Note 3 – Which Way Western Man?, William G. Simpson (National Alliance, 1978), pp. 112-115.
Editor’s Note: For two years, winter and summer, that is exactly what he did, even when invited to address large gatherings of Christians in rather elegant surroundings. And shoes were not all that he gave up. On Good Friday, 1925, as he was walking barefoot across the New Jersey countryside, near the little town of Pleasant Grove, he was suddenly filled with the irresistible urge to go all the way, to make no more compromises. His inner voice told him:
* * *
“Strip yourself naked, and from this hour depend only on what comes to you as a gift.” I must shed off all my old life, with its fears and desires, and all the buying and selling in self-protection that had come out of those fears and desires, right down to my last stitch, right down to my bared skin; and thereafter depend on God, on the love in men, as a child depends on its mother ….
But how could I do this? I saw myself approaching a farmer’s back door, and the expression on the face of the farmer’s wife when she opened to my knock. It seemed impossible. I struggled. And as I struggled I paced up and down, up and down, fearing, and yet wanting. How can I? Howcan I? But also: How can I not? How dare I refuse? And the steady, quiet whispering in my ear, “You must. You must. You can. It is possible to do it. And you must.”
Just then there reached my ear the faint ring of a distant axe against a tree. In a flash I saw my way through. That woodsman was God’s answer to my shrinking from facing the farmer’s wife stark naked: out of his mercy he was easing me through. It was decided. With heart overflowing with thanksgiving and joy, I knelt down for a moment. “Nothing in my hand I bring — naked come to Thee for dress,” I whispered.
And then quickly I slipped off my shirt and trousers and lay them on my knapsack; then my underwear, and on top of all my Ingersoll watch and my fountain pen. And then at a bound I leaped the fence, sprang across the wide stubble field that lay between the road and the woods, and suddenly stood before the woodchopper. He looked at me transfixed. And I was almost as dumbfounded as he: for I knew him; and worse yet, he knew me …. But there was no help for it. The die was cast.
“Mr. Frace,” I said, “I want to begin a new life today. All that I have, as if it were the dead skin of the life that I want to leave behind, is in a little pile by the side of the road, over yonder. You are welcome to anything there you can use. Henceforth I want everything that goes from me to go as a gift of love, and to live only on what comes to me as a gift.”
He was a very simple fellow; indeed, he was known around Pleasant Grove, where he lived with an elderly mother, as pretty much of a wastrel. Yet he seemed to understand, though his voice quavered a little as he said, “You wait here, while I go over and see if I can’t get the man I’m working for to give me some clothes you can put on.”
So he went off, and I kept myself warm with the axe. Presently he came back with a pair of old, black dress trousers and an even older shirt with heavy, gray-and-white stripes that somehow suggested a penitentiary. I thanked him warmly, and after a little talk I went on my way, holding up my trousers with one hand, for they were much too large in the waist, and no belt had come with them. I stopped here and there as I went, and one man gave me a suit of underwear, and another a sack coat and a piece of cord for my trousers.
By this time I had reached the concrete highway. I made no effort to get rides. I just trudged on and on, with my thoughts. By the time I had walked the ten miles to the village of Washington my feet were raw and cold. When I went into the railroad station to rest two plain-clothesmen sat down, one on either side of me, and put me under arrest. They thought I must be an escaped lunatic from a nearby insane asylum.
* * *
Editor’s Note: This episode came at about the halfway mark in his Franciscan period; he still had another four and a half years of desperately earnest striving before he could hear his inner voice directly and clearly, without the distorting effect of its being filtered through a layer of Christian attitudes and preconceptions. Even so, other, more natural attitudes were beginning to break through his Christianity much earlier. Of 1926 he writes, “Even in those days I was essentially aristocratic in my motives and taste. I sought quality in life everywhere, always. But I had much to learn about what quality in human life is, and is made of.”
The same year he had an experience which moved him much closer to the new path for which he was groping. It was his reading of The Psychology of Religious Mysticism, by James H. Leuba, a professor at Bryn Mawr College:
* * *
This book, together with the exchange of letters with Dr. Leuba that followed my reading of it, had a far-reaching and momentous effect on me. Above all, it brought home for the first time the necessity of distinguishing clearly between the “raw stuff” of the mystic’s experience and the interpretations of that experience which he has commonly included as a valid part of the experience itself. In my deepest stillness there had always been that which spoke within me and said, “Do this” or “Go there.” And this that spoke within me was, indeed, part of the raw material of basic, irreducible human experience.
That much was certain. But I had not been content to leave it at that. On the contrary, I had immediately interpreted that experience. I had assumed I knew what it was that spoke. I declared that God spoke to me. In doing this I went beyond what I knew by experience, and poured experience into the mental mold of a metaphysical and theistic construct. I now saw, or was put on the way to see, that this was unwarranted. And in the end this realization was to cut from under me my belief in a theistic universe and to prepare me for Nietzsche and for what was to be a vast spiritual upheaval.
At the time I think I did not fully appreciate the gravity of what had happened to me. I failed to apprehend that before I got through I should have to lose my belief in a metaphysical God as the guarantor of moral order, rationality, and purpose in the universe, not to speak of his place as guide and stay of my own individual life. I sensed then only that my mystical experience did not, as I had supposed, provide me with adequate grounds for feeling any certainty about such ultimate matters. But even this, apparently, was enough to leave me in some distress. On April 23rd I wrote in my journal:
“Out of an hour of deepest doubt and deadness and darkness, as I walked the road this night, it was given me to say, `I know not whether or not Thou lovest me; but whether or no, I love Thee.’ And I knew that this was enough.
“I will come to the place where I do not depend on being loved by anyone, not even on being loved by God. And even though it somehow be proved that God is not Love, that the universe is malign toward man, yet will I love God, and all that is, everybody and everything. For therein is Life. And because I must.”
Even this first, tentative answer perhaps indicated that I should prove not incapable of that inner self-sufficiency in which alone a man can find a rock able to withstand all the onslaughts of circumstance and all the caustic solvent of modern scientific skepticism. And my further reactions to Leuba, set down five days later, gave evidence that I should eventually prove equal to the new problems that were opening up before me. I wrote:
“Last night I finished Leuba’s Psychology of Religious Mysticism. He concludes not only that God is not known directly or at all through the mystic’s quiet, but that knowledge of God, like knowledge of everything else, comes only through the mind. The senses and the mystic’s experience of ekstasis (of standing outside of himself, outside the limits of ordinary self-consciousness) furnish only ‘mental stuff,’ ‘neutral stuff,’ which has no meaning till it is elaborated by the mind. Knowledge requires mental interpretation of experience.
“I think it is quite likely that his contention is strictly sound. But it may be a question whether ‘knowledge’ itself (as thus strictly defined) may not be a thing that we shall have to transcend in the evolution of human life.
“Knowledge is always a self-conscious process, in which the knower stands off and sees things in their relations, their proportions, and their significance. But while he may thus be able to sift and sort and arrange and give meaning to things, does not the very perspective which enables him to do this require that he (as it were) hold them in his hand, that is, stand off from them, see them apart from himself? Does not all ‘knowledge’ require a knower and known separate? And does not this perspective (together with the results derived from it) fall short of that further perspective in which we see things not in relation to ourselves but in relation to the whole, or not so much see things in this larger, more universal relationship, but in our own consciousness, our own feeling, realize our oneness with all that is?
“‘Knowledge’ does depend upon mind, and, therefore, upon that self-consciousness out of which mind was evolved and of which it is a constant expression and reminder. It is better than simple consciousness, where the knower is one with the known but where there is no differentiation, where the knower does not know that he is one with the known. But does it not fall short of that other consciousness, in which the perceiver is aware that he is one with the perceived, knows that he is the perceived? May this not be as simple and immediate a datum of the experience of such a mystic as Buddha or Jesus or Edward Carpenter, as are the ordinary data of sensory experience?
“The mind may then go to work on this experience and build out of it new conceptions of Reality. The mind or other faculties may there-from derive a sense of peace, of security, of joy. But is not this root matter, this perception of oneness in the universe and of being one with the universe or even of being the universe itself — is not this as immediate an experience as is undifferentiated awareness in simple consciousness? Is it not itself ‘mental stuff’ from which peace, security, and joy may be derived but which is itself independent of all mental interpretation or elaboration?
“And if so, may we not have in the true mystical ecstasy (not the emotional orgies of some of the neurotics) the attainment (or sudden emergence) of a new faculty of perception, an inner eye? Upon the material it provides the mind may work, but it will itself provide material never provided by the senses or reason.”
* * *
Editor’s Note: This growing understanding of the meaning of his inner voice did not in the least smother it with reason or make his communion with the god within himself any less a truly religious experience. But he was inevitably evolving toward a cosmotheist understanding of this experience and away from a Christian understanding.
After an hour of mystical communion which came upon him one night in October 1926 as he was walking alone in the dark, he wrote in his journal:
* * *
“I am not Bill Simpson. I have known it this night. I have bestrode the hilltops and reached among the stars. I don’t know who I am or what I am.
“I have pressed my Beloved close, I have breathed His breath, I have kissed His face in the rocks and gentle evergreens and the dead leaves on the ground. I have drunk deep the fragrance of His body with nose pressed close against the earth and the grasses and the low-growing herbs.
“I don’t know who I am – or what – but I am not Bill Simpson. Yea — yea — I am Thou. Bill Simpson can no longer hold me. I laughingly elude him and will not be held by all his clutchings. What happens to him, it is nothing.
“I will live in millions of others, in the wind, the light, the grasses and trees and running waters, the morning light and the evening twilight, in the sun and moon and stars. Before these were, I am — and after these are gone, I am.”
* * *
Editor’s Note: After this his Franciscan life in Wallington became more and more intolerable to him. He could stand “doing good” and speaking in the streets for only a few days at a time; then he would have to leave and wrestle with his conscience before coming back once again. He writes:
* * *
There were parts of my life with regard to which I was plagued by a constantly deepening uncertainty. More and more I had to doubt whether you did best help a man who has to lie in the gutter, by lying down beside him. And even if it were true, the first law of my being was not to help others, but to become what I was meant to become.
Whatever “doing good” I did must be consonant with my own true makeup; it must be something I did while I went the way that belonged to me. In the last analysis it made no difference how much inspiration people might get out of hearing me speak or learning of the life we lived in Wallington. No matter what the effect I must not put anything on or keep up anything that was false, or true for me no longer. My life was not a spectacle or a demonstration. Any inspiration from it that could prove real and lasting must come out of what I was.
From the same angle I saw it was essential to throw off the spell of Jesus. With my head, to be sure, I had begun to see even long years before that I must not follow him. I had rejected the theology that made Jesus of cardinal importance. And when Brooklyn’s pompous Dr. Reisner had asked me if I were not “trying to carry on the Lord’s work,” I had replied, “No! I have my own to do.” And in all my talks I had for years been declaring that every living thing bears within itself the way it must grow, the shape it must fulfill.
No potato rolls its eye around to see how the cabbage grows. And the way I went must come out of myself as oak leaves come out of an oak tree. If I failed in this, I failed in everything: the life force in me had been beaten.
If I made a pattern even of Jesus, if I let any word of his take the place of my own insight, then he whom so many people looked to as saviour would become my destroyer. He could inspire me, but inspire me only to find and to follow a way that was my own, as he had followed a way that was his own — else was he my enemy.
All this I had seen and said quite rightly. But in fact, and more largely than I had realized, I was living the way I lived in Wallington because I thought that was the way Jesus had lived. The form of my life was being determined by an idea. Living impulse was being subordinated to reason. But one cannot live so — not really live. The time was now approaching when I must throw off this idee fixe before it strangle me. It was not Jesus’ life I must live, but my own.
* * *
Editor’s Note: Breaking long-established patterns of thought and behavior is easier said than done, however. Simpson was, as he notes, “slowly and laboriously climbing out of the quagmire that the influence of Jesus had become to me, but my legs were still pretty shaky and the ground under me anything but firm.”
His legs betrayed him, and he fell back into the quagmire, when, in the spring of 1927, what he called his “martyr complex” was reactivated by a Christian friend from Georgia, who believed that his personal mission was to love Blacks and Whites equally and to persuade others to do likewise. In 1927, nearly three decades before Jewish television had begun working its magic on the minds of White Georgians, that was a dangerous mission.
It was the danger which was the principal attraction for Simpson. While he was debating with himself about going to Georgia with his friend, he wrote to two other friends;
* * *
” … I now face squarely the utter necessity of beginning to live dangerously. Not that I would seek danger … But in a world like ours love must cost; perfect love must cost a man’s all. And my life has been easy, safe, cheap, largely talk, littledoing, no doing that took all I had in me …. I feel, indeed, that love is as much denied in Passaic as in Georgia, but the situation is much more intangible, harder to come to grips with. I haven’t come to grips with it at all. I feel none of us has. If we had, the lion would have roared long before this. Apparently all we do no more than tickles his ear. For he snores on and on, as though we were nowhere around.
“Something is wrong.
” … May we not all of us together lay ourselves open before God, and be willing to go any way?”
* * *
Editor’s Note: In the end, however, he decided to go to India rather than to Georgia. “Many friends, ” he writes, “wanted me to meet Gandhi and were ready to put up money to make the trip possible.” He sailed from San Francisco for Yokohama in late November 1927.
In Japan he had a long visit with a Japanese Christian evangelist, and then he went to Manchuria to see a Buddhist sage. In Singapore he conferred with a noted Mohammedan imam. And eventually he made his way to India.
In Calcutta he spoke with a number of Hindus, some of them disciples of Gandhi. Later he went to Bolpur to visit Rabindranath Tagore, the great Hindu poet and mystic. It was there, as he was walking and talking one evening with Kahiti Mohan Sen, a Sanskrit teacher at Tagore’s school, that he experienced a sudden flood of mystical insight:
* * *
At that moment something happened inside me. We finished our walk, and I continued to listen to what Mr. Sen was saying, but for once it was with only half an ear. All the while there went through a me, stab after stab, a sense of my faithlessness. Like the woman taken in adultery I felt caught in the very act. Had I come all the way to India to hear my own words, now as it seemed thrown up at me tauntingly, in a word of Kabir?
Did I not know even before I left America that each man’s Gita, a Gospel, and God are within himself? Would I ever have crossed so much as the continent had I been true to that sense in me?
What was I doing in India anyway? Why was I hanging around asking for food that other men, like Tagore and Gandhi, had chewed over? What had fed them would not necessarily feed me. Anyway, chewed food was unclean….
As soon as I could escape I found myself a solitary place in a grove of mango trees, and there in the full moonlight I paced up and down while there came to me and pulsed and throbbed through me and overflowed from me a deep, liberating and exultant sense that “my guru is within me.” It sang and sang itself through my soul, until I laughed aloud in the moonlight.
I knew a sense of inner sufficiency for anything and everything, a consciousness of the presence of my Beloved so real and so near that I could entirely abandon myself to the eternal present and live each moment as though I never had lived before. The example and precedent of others, even of Jesus, I must set aside, reverently but firmly. From my own past I must set myself free. I must forget all that I ever had said or done.
And on this Light that had come to me I must act at once. I must cancel the whole trip up the Ganges and even all the arrangements that I had made to stay with Gandhi.
Still drunk with the spirit that was upon me I went in to my room and wrote a letter to my friends back in Wallington, the essential part of which read as follows:
“My guru is within myself! I’ve said it and said it, but now I know it as never before — and I cannot any longer contain him in the old ways.
‘The old, hard, long-cherished shell cracks at last. Away with all this talk about coming to India to sit at the feet of Gandhi or some other. All that is in Gandhi and Tagore and Nishida and all the swamis, saddhus, and sannyasis in the world is in me — and for me far more is in my own heart than in all of them put together. All this going hither and yon and talking to this man or that is sawdust to me. Why should I eat all this food that other men have chewed over? It revolts me.
“I will have the living water that is wasting itself from the springs in his eternal hills. I will have the ripe, luscious fruit brought to me fresh from the fields in his own hands. I will have none other.
The crack widens. I will have done with my past. … A holy madness is upon me. I laugh and chuckle in my joy. Say not to me, ‘Slow, go easy, wait to make sure.’ I will make sure — but I don’t need to. I know I am right; never was I so sure of anything in my life.
“I am a camel and I know water when I smell it. I have got the sniff of it in my nostrils and nothing shall stop me. I say again and I will shout it and dance to it; My guru is within me.
“No more will I remember what I said yesterday. No more will I write down the gem which came to my heart today, like a miser counting his gold. Such gems — I have millions of them. I need not to count them or guard them or save them. What comes to me today I will scatter with lavish hand, like a sower scattering seed, and tomorrow I will do the same — and the same forever and ever.
“I will live only now — each moment fresh and new as the morning dew. I know nothing about ‘no property,’ or ‘no money,’ and all the rest of it. I know not what will happen to Wallington or to my relations with any of my comrades. I know positively nothing about any such thing as a ‘way of life.’ I know only that my guru is within me, and that what he gives me to do each moment I will try each moment to do. Joy, joy, joy: the shell really cracking at last — and the face of a little child emerging.”
* * *
Editor’s Note: A few days later he returned to Calcutta and booked passage on a ship to London. After a week’s visit with the artist and writer Laurence Housman, brother of the poet A. E. Housman, Simpson boarded another ship, late in March 1928, for America. He writes:
* * *
Somewhere on the high seas, between Southampton and New York, I threw my little, worn, khaki-covered New Testament into the Atlantic. Its end papers and the margins of the pages of the Gospels I had crowded, in fine penciled script, with my comments on the teaching of Jesus. It was only a .gesture, of course, and maybe a futile one. But it was an effort to stamp upon my conscious, and even upon my subconscious, that I must be done with this everlasting reference to Jesus, or, for that matter, to the teaching of any other man.
* * *
Source: National Vanguard magazine, August 1983, pages 13-21