On Love and Wisdom, Reflections on St. Xenia of St. Petersburg and High Romance and the Spiritual Path
By Jennifer Doane Upton
I: On Love and Wisdom for, and to, the Traditionalists
God is Love, but He is also Wisdom. And since all duality has its roots in the illusory world, these divine aspects are not two, but One. Sometimes we name this One “Wisdom”; sometimes we name it “Love.”
Our mother religion has been Christianity and this tradition, in its attempt to distance itself from dangerous heresies, has often put a veil over true gnosis, that is, Divine Wisdom. Gnosis, of course, has always been in the heart of our religion. In its own way it has been the light which shines in the darkness. For a long time, however, that gnosis has been rarely spoken of.
Divine Wisdom is the pearl of great price which we cannot overvalue. We who value Wisdom are wrong, however, to look upon her as a proud secret, and Love as an intruder. After all, it is Divine Love who is Wisdom’s Bridegroom, and not we ourselves.
We do not recognize Love because of the mysterious shapes in which it appears to us. Divine Knowledge is the crown of Being and its glory is self-evident. Love, however, leaves its footprints in the most unlikely aspects of our soul—as Beatrice, in Dante’s Inferno, left her footprint in deepest Hell. Sometimes because of Love we, like Dante, must look upon Hell for the first time. Without the love and intercession of Beatrice, Dante would never have seen the face of Hell. But without the vision of Hell, there would have been no way for him to travel on, through Purgatory, to Paradise.
When Love draws near to us we fear chaos, because Divine Love can stare chaos in the face in a way that Divine Knowledge is never asked to do. This is why we have the tradition that Christ harrowed Hell. When we see Christ descending into Hell so that our own inner hells may be transformed, we experience an event of unutterable Beauty—a Beauty which would bind the faculties of the soul, were not Divine Love there to set us free.
We understand that since the gnostic knows the world through Divine Wisdom, he is able to see the Beauty therein, especially in the realm of nature. But Divine Beauty is inseparable from Love. How can we then, having once seen this otherworldly Beauty, denigrate Love in any form? Hasn’t the lover at least begun to know that which he loves?
Some who value Divine Wisdom have seemed to say, in the name of Divine Beauty, that love of neighbor is somehow less than love of virgin nature. Other human beings, however—our brothers and sisters in the human state—are the crown of nature in this visible world. The last revenge of Hell against gnosis would be to present us with a vision of Beauty without Love.
But those who deny Wisdom in the name of Love, because they don’t want to be thought of as “Gnostics”, are equally in error. They will end by betraying Love, because without insight there is no Truth, and Love cannot be based on a lie.
II: Reflections on St. Xenia of St. Petersburg
St. Xenia is described in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy for her feast on January 24 as one who has broken with the vanity and the illusory character of this world. One can’t help but ask: What is this illusion, this world which she feels it is so imperative to break with?
The narrative of her life is simple. As a young woman she marries a professional entertainer connected with the military. He lives an artistic and dissipated life which eventually ends in sudden death without the last rites of the church.
When he dies everything changes for Xenia. She gives away the home they had kept together and begins to travel as a pilgrim. The world can never again be her home. Now if she is to have a home, even in her thoughts, she must intuit that true homeland which is always strangely present to those whose longing for it is real. Eventually she returns to St. Petersburg—perhaps, however, not until her knowledge of that true homeland, which is not other than Paradise, has become so complete that she can easily disregard what the world calls real and present, all of which is so easily corrupted by time.
When she returned to St. Petersburg, in no way was she trying to return home. Everything had changed. Her relationship to her native city was precarious. She dressed in rags and remained without shelter in the Russian winter, miraculously protected from the cold by her faith in God. She was homeless. Sometimes people threw mud and stones at her; at other times they came to her with reverence because she could see into their futures as they could not. Perhaps the same people who threw stones at her would later be among the ones who came to her, seeking the truth about themselves. Some of those people may even have reflected how, if the part of the soul which revered her found truth, then that part which had reviled her must be false.
She wore her dead husband’s military uniform. She went even further, and demanded that people call her by her husband’s name, Andrei. It was as if she were saying “Every day you tell yourself that you see Xenia walking about your streets, the same one who traveled to the far corners of her world seeking truth. You see Xenia continuously giving away clothes which had been given to her, becoming more and more of a saint every day and thereby gaining your respect. But beware! You only see what appears; you do not see the truth of things.”
“It is Andrei you see. It is he who goes about the streets of St. Petersburg giving away the alms others have given him. It is Andrei who in the nighttime climbs the edifice of the church being built, carrying bricks in order to help the workman in their work. In truth it is Andrei whom you see becoming a saint. As for Xenia, she is not here. It has been a long time since there has been anything of Xenia which you could see. When you look toward her you do not find her. Therefore it is a mercy that, when you look to Xenia, instead of seeing a nobody, you see Andrei. You are allowed to see him because it is he who is becoming a saint, not Xenia. It is Andrei who in giving away all his material possessions gives himself away. It is Andrei who, in telling you your futures, is showing you that the love of God goes deeper than you ever knew. As for Xenia, she allows you to forget her as completely as she has forgotten herself.” When she visited people’s houses, she would often say, “Here is all of me!”. She said this because nothing was left of her that could exclude or contradict this particular “here.” Because she has no home, she is at home everywhere. Because she has no self, nothing in her contradicts the self she presents to others as their guest.
Sometimes Xenia, in calling herself Andrei, is associated with St. Andrew, the fool-for-Christ, who in Constantinople had a vision of the Mother of God lifting her veil. This is the vision upon which the feast of the Protecting Veil, on the 1st of October, is based. One can imagine the veil of the Mother of God being so broad that it embraces Xenia’s veil. Xenia lifted her own veil long enough to show us a mercy which we cannot know in an ordinary way. When, however, we grasp the bit of that mercy which we are able to see, and go in search of Xenia as an “ordinary” person, then that Veil falls over us, and separates us even from the love that we used to know.
In some ways Andrei is a type of that aspect of God which is manifested, while Xenia represents the aspect which is never manifested, even though she remains a person. Andrei has a name, whereas Xenia—whose name means “stranger”—denies others permission to give her a name, other than Andrei. However, in another way, it is Xenia who is the living person, whereas Andrew is now nothing but a jacket that she wears. All this is an oblique way of talking about what of God can be revealed, and what of Him must remain hidden. Also, it shows how, at times, the two aspects, the manifest and the unmanifest, mysteriously change places.
III: High Romance and the Spiritual Path
High romance is a quality of feeling that participates in the higher spiritual realities. It draws its life from the eternal, not the timely.
High romance begins with human feeling, but far from stopping at the human level, this feeling goes on to higher spiritual worlds. Human love in some sense meets its death at the birth of divine love. But in another way, it lives on through that very death, as a symbol of that higher love.
High romance involves passion and discipline. In a situation of either dry scholarship or sentimentality, there is no place for high romance. If high romance were present, the scholarship would be passionate, and the emotions disciplined.
High romance is feeling oriented towards truth, toward knowledge. While we are contemplating the realities high romance points to, however, we must be humble enough to accept the human level which alone makes an understanding of the spiritual level possible to us.
The love of God is always secret. For most of us it is so secret that we are not even aware of it. All manifestations that appear around this love are false in a sense, and tend to mis-direct us. To look for the love of God itself within manifest conditions is always to go astray. We spend our time in the world being attracted to this and repulsed by that, and all the while we are blind to this one secret love.
All stories about secret loves begin to reveal to us the love of God, even though in another sense they may be remote from this love.
We can miss the spirituality of a romantic story in two ways. One is to take it simply as a human love story, and not allow any realization of the spiritual dimension of human love to arise. The other is to treat it merely as an allegory, and try to cut out the human, the romantic level. Often those with some spiritual insight will relate to romantic material in just this way. If they see that the story is pointing toward higher realities, they believe they can ignore the human level and concentrate on the level of spiritual allegory alone. However, if one is not a romantic, one cannot reach a spiritual level of understanding by means of romantic literature.
In high romance, the spirit descends into and fills out the human level that is being expressed. Often, on account of the intensity of emotion this produces, we feel ashamed when we approach romantic material or states. All this loving of love, this having to do without love even as we love—it blisters our self-esteem. We reproach this state, as surely as the ladies of Egypt, in Jami’s romance Yusuf and Zuleika, reproached Zuleika’s love for Joseph. (“Yusuf” is the Arabic form of “Joseph”; Zuleika is the name given in Islamic tradition to Potiphar’s wife from the Book of Genesis.)
When we deny romantic states, we distort the very forms the Spirit is trying to ennoble. The Spirit hovers above us, with no way to reach our humanity. We have allowed it to be stranded.
In Yusuf and Zuleika, Yusuf is sold as a slave and taken into Egypt, and Zuleika, who buys him, falls in love with him. But Yusuf treats her with complete indifference. This is not because of an actual lack of love on his part, but because Yusuf deeply intuits that if their love were to be expressed in that time and in that state—Zuleika is a married woman—the fullness of that love would not be served. Since, however, his knowledge is intuitive, he cannot explain it to Zuleika. And even if this were possible, neither of them could explain it to the world.
Zulieka suffers, and word gets around about her love for Yusuf, and the humiliation it is bringing upon her. The ladies of Egypt protest that they would never fall in love with their slaves, and even if they did, they would certainly not be rejected by them; they are much too charming and attractive.
When Zuleika discovers that she’s being talked about, she goes to the ladies and asks them: Have you ever seen Yusuf? And if not—would you like to? The ladies are surprised by this offer. But their curiosity draws them to accept it, and they have no reason to question their curiosity.
Zuleika invites them to a great banquet, and just as the fruit is being served, she brings Yusuf before them. When the ladies see him, they cut their own hands instead of the oranges they are holding. Love has come to them; but they, unlike Zuleika, have not taken a single step toward love. Thus, for the rest of their lives, they will be vulnerable to hysteria, insanity and emotional breakdowns. Pride, that enemy of love, has discovered that love is also its enemy, and so it can no longer give them its hideous protection.
An example of high romance from Western Europe can be found in Yeats’ poem, “The Three Bushes,” which was inspired by an incident from Historia Mei Temporis by the Abbe Michel de Bourdvielle; the following is my own rendition of the story:
A lady finds within herself deep feelings for a man to whom she cannot be married, and with whom she has no carnal relationship. Because of this, she feels the pain of her love’s incompleteness, and this pain teaches her that if love does not naturally flower into wholeness, then it must in some way approximate wholeness—for her lover’s sake if not for her own.
So that her lover might taste the love that her own soul has already tasted, she tells him that she will go to him at midnight, and their love will be consummated. But she agrees to do this only on condition that all will remain in darkness. She tells him that she cannot bear to see herself coming to him.
Nonetheless, the lady knows that her love for him cannot be consummated—not so much on account of propriety, but because her love is centered in the soul, and if it were to leave this soul-centeredness, it would be debased. She is unwilling to give her lover less than the highest love of which she is capable.
Still, the soul has its own generosity. The lady asks her maid, a woman untroubled by spiritual love, to go and take her place in the dark beside her lover. Midnight comes, and the maid willingly does what her lady has asked.
The lover blooms within a love whose wholeness he cannot comprehend. The lady finds her own happiness in watching him. However, when she sees her maid, the pain of love returns to her, because she knows that her love can only approximate wholeness. She will never be able to know that place to which her maid goes so easily.
This love-arrangement goes on for a full year; and during this period, the lover comes to see the sacred and the carnal as one. He remembers the first night his “lady” came to him as if it were the only night. Whereas once he had sung songs, now he is speechless.
When he feels at last the completeness of this love, he decides to go out hunting. While on this trip, his horse puts its foot into a rabbit-hole, and throws him. He is killed. His lady sees all of this, and dies with him easily, for what is a death to the outer man is a marriage to the soul.
The maid, who has only the weight of her body to lift, lives a long time, and tends their graves. She plants a rosebush on each grave, and nurses them until they grow so large that they seem to come from a single root.
When she is dying, and the priest comes to her, she confesses everything, and asks to be buried beside the lover of her lady. As the priest listens, he hears how, after a lifetime of endurance, the body had finally tasted the love that the soul tastes easily. He cannot deny this body its own place. When she dies, the priest has her buried beside her lady’s lover. He plants another rosebush on her grave, and tends those bushes so well that there comes a time when all three seem to spring from the same root.
If we can’t think, our ability to feel for what is true breaks down. If an imbalance exists within a person where he seems to be able to think and not feel, or feel and not think, that person’s state can never be stable. Martin Lings, in his book The Secret of Shakespeare, speaks of Othello as a man who, through his love for Desdemona, can love the truth, but cannot see it. He has no spiritual vision. Since Othello cannot see the truth, he is completely vulnerable to Iago’s lies. This recalls how Lings, in his article “The Signs of Times” from The Sword of Gnosis, speaks of the tendency of modern man to have deep feelings for his religion, but be unable to bring his intelligence to it, because everything he has been taught has forced him to secularize that intelligence. He is not allowed to know what it is that he feels for so deeply. His contemplative intelligence has not been born.
At the beginning of the play, Desdemona’s father warns Othello that since he, the father, has been deceived by his daughter, she may well deceive Othello later on. The father feels betrayed because he perceives contradictions in Desdemona’s behavior. When she shows no interest in the young men he introduces as suitors, he assumes that she isn’t interested in marriage—but then she elopes with Othello, and seems to put her marriage to him before everything else. The father’s impulse is to believe that Othello, through magical means, has cast a spell upon her. One might ask: What else can he believe? The father does not see Desdemona’s true character, either before she elopes with Othello or afterwards.
His comment sows a seed of doubt in Othello that Iago is later able to play upon. The tragedy of the play lies in the fact that although Othello feels for Desdemona’s character, he can no more see it than her father can. He knows that the accusation that he has practiced magic is false, but when he looks at the apparent contradictions in Desdemona’s behavior that have made her father feel betrayed, he has no way to understand them. He cannot see how Maya has thrown a magical illusion over the whole situation—an illusion which Iago can exploit.
Othello, like the father, cannot see how Desdemona’s lack of interest in eligible young men, far from implying a rejection of marriage itself, indicates a deep feeling for it. She feels the profundity of marriage within her soul; therefore, instead of accepting a marriage which will only make her happy on a social level, she waits for the one situation that will fulfill this profundity. When she meets Othello, she recognizes the opportunity for the fulfillment of the love her soul has prepared her for. This is why she can accept Othello immediately. All that Desdemona’s father, however, and finally Othello himself, can see in this is unconventional behavior, and Othello fears that a woman who is capable of such behavior is likely to prove unfaithful. Maya has made her faithfulness in rejecting her false suitors and accepting without question her one true love look like flightiness and immaturity.
In the end, after Iago, through deception, has won Othello over to his way of seeing and caused him to kill Desdemona—which he cannot do without murdering his own truest feelings—his spiritual vision, according to Lings, is restored. After Desdemona’s death, he sees her true character. Unfortunately, this insight comes too late to restore his loss on the terrestrial plane. Only through repentance can love and knowledge be reunited for him, though not on this earth. Without repentance, the true vision of who Desdemona is could never have come to Othello; for the sake of the salvation of his soul, his full human love must be restored to him, even though Desdemona no longer appears in this terrestrial world.
This vision causes him to give up his own life. That is, he gives up his present level of being, which contains everything he has known how to call life. As his vision leads him beyond himself, it brings back both his beloved wife and his deep love for her, and shows to him their eternal forms.
[NOTE: Sophia Perennis titles on Spiritual Romance include Shadow of the Rose: The Esoterism of the Romantic Tradition by Charles Upton and Dark Way to Paradise: Dante’s Inferno in Light of the Spiritual Path by Jennifer Doane Upton.]